Daily Press Briefing - March 23, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
.2:07 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey, everybody. Happy Wednesday. Looks like a beautiful spring day outside. I hope you get out to enjoy it.
QUESTION: Hope so.
Obviously, many of you have already heard this, but it bears repeating. Secretary Kerry will travel to Brussels, Belgium on Friday to formally express the condolences of the United States for the loss of life in yesterday’s terrorist attacks and to meet with Belgian and European Union officials. He’ll reiterate the strong support of the United States for Belgian efforts to investigate these attacks and continue contributing to international efforts to counter violent extremism. The Secretary will be arriving from Moscow where he expects to discuss a range of bilateral and regional security issues with President Putin as well as other Russian officials.
And also, again, many of you have already seen this or are aware of this, but I just wanted to briefly update as we continue to assess the impact of yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels. So right at this point, we’re aware of approximately a dozen U.S. citizens who were injured in the attacks. At this time, we are not aware of any U.S. citizen deaths. We must emphasize that a number of U.S. citizens remain unaccounted for, and the Kingdom of Belgium has not yet released nationality information for reported fatalities. So that’s ongoing. I believe that’s – that process is actually beginning or in train now. Our own internal U.S. Government accountability is ongoing as well, and we’re making every effort to account for the welfare of both chief of mission personnel as well as U.S. citizens in the city.
And with that, Brad, I’ll take your question.
QUESTION: Okay. Firstly, you’re looking into the welfare of both American citizens in general and your personnel. Are you – how many people remain unaccounted for from the State Department?
MR TONER: Sure. And I know this is a sore point for some of you in the room, but we just can’t give an accurate assessment of how many American citizens are unaccounted for. A couple of reasons: One, it’s Belgium, and there’s a lot of American citizens, obviously, who are working there, traveling there, there for business, tourism, what have you. So in any situation like this, we are – we keep a running list, if you will. We try to go through that list, try to identify the whereabouts of folks, but we’re constantly adding to that list as loved ones or family call in to say they haven’t reached or been able to contact someone.
So that’s – again, as was the buzzword yesterday, the situation remains very fluid.
QUESTION: And State --
MR TONER: I’m sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: -- other State Department personnel?
MR TONER: Yeah. So in terms of State Department or U.S. Government personnel, that is still also ongoing. We still have not accounted for every official U.S. Government employee or their members – or family members on the ground in Belgium – or in Brussels, rather. Partly, that reflects the size of the mission or three missions. There’s a bilateral mission, there’s a mission to the EU, as well as a mission to NATO. And as I said, partly reflects the fact that there’s a number of injured in the hospital – in hospitals around the city, and we’re still trying to gain access and trying to determine the identity of those and the nationality, obviously, of those individuals.
QUESTION: Yesterday, you issued a travel alert and you talked about the possibility of near-term attacks. Do you have any specific – do you have knowledge of any specific threats, specific plots that are planned in Europe right now?
MR TONER: So you’re right, we did release a travel alert yesterday, and it was to alert U.S. citizens, obviously, to the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Europe. It includes Ankara, Istanbul, as well as Brussels. The travel alert reflects our assessment that given current information, we believe that Daesh, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe. And as we’ve seen, those attacks could target sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, transportation hubs as of yesterday, what have you. That is not – so there’s no specific threat. We have no knowledge of a specific threat. And if we did have that, as you know, we are legally bound, but certainly it’s part of our responsibility – we would alert any American citizens who might be affected by that threat.
QUESTION: Have you had any contact with your European allies regarding this alert? It just seemed – the gravity of it was --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- quite striking for a place that grosso modo is still a very safe place to be in the world.
MR TONER: Well, it is, and thanks for raising that, because this is in no way to discourage or to recommend that Americans do not travel or postpone or cancel their travel plans. It’s just an effort, a responsibility, a duty, if you will, to make sure that these American citizens, when they do travel abroad, have access to the latest information regarding the security situation in Europe. And part of this – we talk a lot about vigilant street smarts, what have you. I mean, everybody has to have that kind of mindset, frankly, when they travel anywhere in the world, including Europe, in today’s world, given the ever-present threat of terrorist attacks or ongoing threat of terrorist attacks.
QUESTION: And then just lastly, on Kerry’s visit --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- what does he hope to accomplish? I saw that he has meetings with EU and Belgian officials. What’s the --
MR TONER: So as you saw yesterday --
QUESTION: -- call beyond solidarity kind of --
MR TONER: Sorry, yeah. Well, solidarity is a big piece of it and I don’t want to underplay that. He spoke to his Belgian counterpart first thing yesterday morning, expressed our solidarity, our condolences. He also spoke last night with Federica – High Representative Mogherini as well to talk about the aftermath of the attacks.
Part of this is he’s coming from Moscow, and when you look at this in its totality, we’re certainly concerned and trying to address the ongoing challenge of these terrorist cells – self-radicalized or recruited cells within European capitals. But it’s also about solving Syria. And so he’s coming from meetings that he’ll have tomorrow with Putin – President Putin in Moscow. They’ll certainly talk about where we stand in terms of the cessation of hostilities as well as the proximity talks. So it’s a chance for him also to update his European colleagues on that.
QUESTION: Yeah. Following on that, do you have reasons to believe that American citizen were targeted in yesterday’s attacks – this is what a congressman said this morning – or that it was an indiscriminate attack in Brussel.
MR TONER: Well, we just don’t have enough clarity. I mean, the investigation’s ongoing. Belgian authorities are in the lead, obviously, on that investigation. We’ve offered our assistance. I think we just need to let that investigation play itself out before we make any determination as to whether specific groups, specific nationalities were targeted. I think what we said yesterday – I’ll get to you, Said. I think what we said yesterday in terms of the timing of it, whether it was related or connected to arrests over the weekend, this is a complex operation; it may have been moved up, but it was probably long planned. But as to who the specific targets were or whether it was just a hit – populated hubs, transportation hubs – we just don’t know.
QUESTION: And I know that you are reluctant to talk about intelligence matters, but are you aware of any early warnings or information given by the U.S. to European countries about the possibility that such an attack could happen after the Paris attacks, and that Belgium was one of the possible targets?
MR TONER: Again, if you’re speaking about specific intelligence or information --
QUESTION: Information, intelligence --
MR TONER: -- or about a specific attack or threat, not that I’m aware of, no.
QUESTION: Yeah. I just wanted to quickly follow up. As far as the advisory, are Americans advised to sort of let the consulate or the embassy know that they are in particular cities there?
MR TONER: Yeah, sure, Said. So in any situation like this, there’s a number of things that American citizens, when they travel abroad, can do. One is a safe traveler program. They can enroll in that, puts us into your system. Certainly, we don’t compel or require American citizens to enroll or register with the embassy when they do travel abroad. If you do do that, as an American citizen, it does allow you to get into our database so that we can alert you when we do have specific security messages to convey or information to convey to the American population or to the American people who are in a specific city or a specific country.
Also, we’d just encourage people – travel.state.gov also has kind of the latest information in terms of threats, warnings, et cetera.
QUESTION: And just in general, I mean, these criminal terrorists, obviously they are affiliated with ISIS; they claim so. They probably have connections with the organizations in the Middle East itself, and they are being financed by perhaps governments that are U.S. allies and so on. Have you looked into that? I mean, is there any effort, ongoing effort by the United States to lean on its allies, especially in the Gulf states? Because a lot of that money either comes from individuals, if not the government directly, but definitely from individuals in these countries. What are you doing in terms of leaning on those allies to dry up the funds? Because obviously these – they are able to organize and move about and rent apartments and do all kinds of things.
MR TONER: Well, a couple of things to say about that. One is terrorist financing, or cutting off the networks of terrorist financing, is one of the lines of effort in our anti-Daesh or anti-ISIL coalition, and we continue to work at that. The other is another line of effort in that is also cutting off the flow of foreign fighters, so those who are radicalized in Syria, in Iraq, and then return back to European capitals mostly, but other places, where they can then recruit more or develop these cells. And among the things we’re working on are better screening procedures. And we’re collaborating with European governments and the EU on increasing or in improving those screening measures and those tracking capabilities for some of these foreign fighters. Border security is a huge issue, as we’ve seen even just with neighboring Turkey. It is a big challenge.
It is also – and the President and others have spoken far more eloquently than I can about this – but it is also just a tremendous challenge to break up small cells of individuals. Two arrested today – and I recognize it’s an early – the two, rather, identified by Belgian authorities, not arrested but Belgium – carrying out the attacks appear to be – they had criminal records but not – no indication that they were radicalized extremists. It’s a difficult – and it’s difficult, frankly – the last thing I’ll say is it’s difficult to infiltrate some of these small cells and networks. It is a tremendous challenge. It is an ongoing challenge.
We’ve offered and – assistance to Belgium, obviously, in the immediate aftermath of this attack, but longer-term cooperation, we all need to lift our games and we all need to get more vigilant at identifying and disrupting these groups. But like I said, we have to be right 100 percent of the time; they just have to be right – or successful one time.
QUESTION: But Mark --
QUESTION: My last – my last --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: -- point on this. I mean, there’s also an indirect way of financing, and it goes directly to places of worship, some mosques and schools and so on, that come also from probably countries that are an ally of the United States of America, where this kind of discourse or that kind of talk and so on is encourage, and so on, and it goes undetected. Are you also – I’m not saying they all are. I mean, there are very few, but enough to sort of radicalize and so on and give some sort of a moral cover for them. Are you talking to these governments on how they finance these institutions or these mosques or these schools?
MR TONER: We’re talking to a lot of governments in the region about countering violent extremism, about how to address it, and that includes how some of these networks are funded. I don’t want to speak to it more broadly than – or more specifically than that.
QUESTION: I have two questions.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: One is your travel warning, if you go through it --
MR TONER: Alert.
QUESTION: -- it’s very vague.
MR TONER: It’s a different thing.
QUESTION: It’s very vague if you go through it.
MR TONER: Thank you.
QUESTION: And as you know, I’ve come from Brussels after living there for years.
MR TONER: That’s right.
QUESTION: So I know the – what’s going on. And the people I am talking to, they are saying that it is more generating fear among them instead of consoling them, this travel warning. One is that – what do you have to say on that?
And the second is: What – there are a lot of students, like I know about more than a dozen students from a university in Maryland who were outside Brussels, and all over Europe there are a lot of exchange students for one semester. Have you compiled anything on that? Have you reached out to them? Is there anybody --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- has asked you for help with that?
MR TONER: Sure. So your first question is – these travel alerts try to provide an overall assessment of the security situation. If we had information about a specific threat, we would, as I mentioned to Brad, convey that through a variety of means. We’re legally compelled to do that, but we also would do it as part of our normal duties.
Your second question is – rather, first question is: We don’t want to sow fear. That’s the last thing we want to do. But it is our responsibility as the U.S. State Department to provide travelers with up-to-date information, accurate and up-to-date information about the security environment in the places they’re traveling to. We take that very seriously. People who travel today – and we encourage people to travel – need to be vigilant, need to have street smarts, need to have a sense of their whereabouts. I mean, that’s always been true. Whether you’re a backpacker, young backpacker traveling through Europe after college, or a businessman in a posh hotel, you always have to have your awareness, your self-awareness. And so what we’re trying to do is just provide travelers with access to that kind of information that just helps their general sense of what’s going on around them. It’s not at all to discourage them or to sow fear.
Your second question, about the student groups. We certainly – many of the exchange students of the universities have contacts with our embassies, and we, as much as possible, try to stay connected with them. Many countries around the world, if not at all, where we have a diplomatic presence, we do have in-country networks among expats living there, American expatriates, and we’re able to, again, convey information to them about the security situation.
QUESTION: I just have a quick --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: -- explanation for the first one.
MR TONER: Yeah, that’s okay.
QUESTION: I’ve gone through a lot of travel alerts. And you say you are legally bound in case there is a specific travel alert. And then usually we hear that this is an intelligence matter and we don’t talk about intelligence matters from this podium. How do you – I haven’t seen any specific travel alert anywhere in any of the travel – maybe I’m stupid not to find that.
MR TONER: No, not at all. But again, I don’t have it at my – in front of me, but --
QUESTION: The question --
MR TONER: -- but there had --
QUESTION: Give me a --
MR TONER: -- sure, I – well, I can look into it. But I mean, there are examples that – where we have had specific threat information. And that includes, by the way, not just terrorists or threat of a terrorist attack, but political instability in countries where we do play out very specific information to Americans who are living there.
QUESTION: Well, when you have a specific terrorist threat, you don’t put it out in a travel alert. You tell the other country and it’s – becomes public information, right? I mean, if you knew a stadium was going to be blown up, you wouldn’t put it out in a piece of paper without much fanfare. Right?
MR TONER: No, of course. But what we would do is share.
MR TONER: Yeah, exactly.
QUESTION: Yeah, you would share it with the --
MR TONER: But we would also – again --
QUESTION: -- but not to the traveling people?
MR TONER: Yeah. Again, I don’t want to parse this too much, but we’d also – we would – we could send out a direct message not necessarily saying this is going to happen then, but heightened alert.
QUESTION: Mark, yesterday U.S. decided to bring its flag at half-staff to honor Brussel victims. And I understand the decision, but my question is, what are the criteria for U.S. to show such respect to a country, as similar attack happens by similar – same terrorist group in other countries as well, as we saw it in Istanbul recently? But U.S. condemned attack, U.S. showed sympathy with Turkey, but it didn’t show such a high respect as bringing its flags to – at half-staff. So I’d like to know what are the criteria to sympathize with any country.
MR TONER: I mean, look, to give you the specific criteria, I mean, partly that’s a decision I believe made by the White House or by the senior leadership of a country. It in no way should be interpreted as showing any disrespect. You raise the case of Turkey, which has suffered greatly from ISIL or Daesh terrorism. And as you said, we’ve expressed our condolences. We have offered our assistance to Turkish authorities as they continue to face that threat. It’s – it is a sign of mourning, a sign of respect, but as to the specific criteria, why this case and the other case, I just don’t have that.
QUESTION: One question on Iraq. The Turkish --
MR TONER: Yeah, please. Are we --
QUESTION: Turkey --
QUESTION: No, no, no. Hold on.
MR TONER: Let’s finish and I promise I’ll come back to you.
QUESTION: Let’s --
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
MR TONER: Just to finish – it’s okay.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: We have more questions on Belgium. I think she was waiting.
MR TONER: Yeah. Oh yeah, of course.
QUESTION: I have a few too.
MR TONER: I didn’t know whether – okay, sorry.
QUESTION: Yeah, I have a couple after.
MR TONER: I was looking to you. Sorry about that. Yeah.
QUESTION: There’s a report out that is – that suggests that Belgian intelligence as well as some Western intelligence agencies had specific knowledge that ISIS would be attacking the airport as well as the metro system. Are you aware of --
MR TONER: I’m not.
QUESTION: Not --
MR TONER: I just don’t – I haven’t seen those reports either.
QUESTION: Then --
QUESTION: And more broadly on the same topic.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you think that Belgium and Europe in general – Belgium in particular, Europe in general – are too complacent or too indulgent, too soft against the threats posed by Islamic networks or terror networks?
MR TONER: I mean, look, there’s – so there’s a couple points to make. One is there’s always a degree of Monday morning quarterbacking that goes – that comes after an event like this where people try to assess could they have done more, could they have acted sooner. We have seen Belgium, like a number of European countries and a number of countries, grapple with this very amorphous and very difficult phenomenon of small-cell radicalized individuals willing to lay down their lives in order to kill or create mass-casualty events. Countless people have spoken to the fact that that is hard to stop.
I think everyone needs to look at how we can increase, strengthen our collaboration, whether that’s through law enforcement, border security, but also intelligence sharing, how we can strengthen those types of cooperation in the wake of an attack like this. That’s just prudent planning for the future. So – but I want to stay clear of saying that Belgium was somehow caught by surprise or not aware – we collaborate, we work with Belgium closely. We are in solidarity with them as they show tremendous resilience in the wake of these attacks, and we’re going to continue to work with them as they seek our guidance, our assistance in how we can strengthen their security but also our own.
QUESTION: You mentioned the threat of individual – cells that are self-radicalized or were radicalized in Syria. Do you know which this cell was?
MR TONER: We don’t. We just don’t know at this point.
QUESTION: And do you see --
MR TONER: I mean, I – again, and just to kind of – I talked about it this morning. We just have – a couple of these individuals didn’t appear to be quote/unquote “extremists” or “radicalized.” They were on police blotters for petty crime, so we just don’t know at this point.
QUESTION: And the threat of cells that were either radicalized in Syria or returned from Syria – do you see that as a shared threat? As in, do you see – are there similar such cells operating in the United States, potentially?
MR TONER: I wouldn’t speak to that, but I think that what I would say is the threat of terrorism and the threat of ISIL terrorism really doesn’t know any borders. So we have to be as vigilant as we would expect our European counterparts to be.
QUESTION: And then I wanted to ask: How – in Kerry’s discussions on Friday, how much will he push the issue of info sharing? There’s a lot of senators in Europe right now and some of them are not being indiscreet about how the Europeans, after all these attacks, still haven’t got their act together even among themselves, let alone transatlantically. How critical of an issue do you see this?
MR TONER: Look, I’m aware of some of the opinions expressed. I don’t want to predict what he’s going to discuss specifically with – in his meetings on Friday other than to say we’re going to look at the broad range of issues about how we can increase our collaboration on counterterrorism efforts.
QUESTION: And my last one --
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: -- on Belgium.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: It follows up on something your colleague said yesterday from the podium about how these attacks show in some ways the desperation of ISIS because they’re losing on the battlefield. It seems to me that – I mean, I’m struggling with this notion that this shows their weakness or that they’re losing. Presumably, it would be your strength if you stopped terrorist attacks, but now that terrorist attacks have happened, you’re citing this as the strength of your military campaign. So, I mean, what is it? You guys are just doing good no matter what and that – no matter how many people they kill, it still shows how good you’re doing?
MR TONER: No, and I don’t think that – I mean, I don’t want to speak for John, but I think we have and we do feel like we’re making gains on the battlefield in Iraq, in Syria. We can talk about putting pressure on them; they’ve – we’ve reduced the number of fighters they have, we’ve reduced the amount of land they control. We’re putting pressure on their quote/unquote “capital,” which is Raqqa. So we do feel like we’re effectively squeezing them, if you will – putting pressure on them.
As a result of that, we’ve seen them try to establish affiliates or whatever – footholds – in places like Libya. So we’ve had to strike there where we’ve had opportunities, and we’ll continue to do that. We have also seen them clearly develop a strategy whereby they want to bring this fight through terrorism to the “West,” quote/unquote. And it’s a many-headed beast, fighting ISIL. And so while we – even though we’re having success on the battlefield, we also need to be mindful of the fact that they’re still able to, again, through small cells or individuals in some of these capitals, create events like yesterday.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up.
MR TONER: Please. Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you aware of reports that one of the perpetrators was actually arrested in Turkey last year and then he was deported? Are you --
MR TONER: I’m not aware of that. I had not seen that.
QUESTION: Okay. And on the point that Brad raised just a little while ago and you responded to, so there is – or you were saying that there is some sort of a hydraulic effect. They get struck in Syria and Iraq and then they find – somehow they find their way back to Europe and so on, which really is not the same as defeating them, is it?
MR TONER: It’s just – as I – I mean, I just said I think it’s more of like a many-headed beast, where you’ve got – clearly there’s the struggle in Iraq, a territorial struggle – more of a traditional battlefield, if you will – in Syria and Iraq, where we’re trying to dislodge them, destroy them from land areas that they control. But like many terrorist organizations, they’re good at creating affiliates, going into ungoverned spaces, metastasizing – whatever analogy or metaphor you want to use. And part of that is, again, trying to export small-group terrorism and use that to terrorize – sow fear in populations in some of the countries that are part of the anti-Daesh coalition. So it’s an ongoing threat.
MR TONER: I like it that you said it with confidence. I swear I will not --
QUESTION: Just one.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: It’s on the fallout. After the Paris attacks, before another, we had talked about the tightening of visa-free travel and all. This may be too soon to ask the question: Do we have any fallout on the travel – visa-free travel? And the second one: Any rethinking about these thousands of Syrian refugees we are ready to take?
MR TONER: So second question first --
QUESTION: How do we make sure that nobody comes in?
MR TONER: Right. Second question first. With regard to the 10,000 Syrian refugees that we’ve pledged to take in this year, no. And the reason why is we still believe that our system of screening ensures that we would be able to catch any would-be terrorists. It is, frankly, these individuals – these families are the most screened security-wise of any people to come into the United States, whether they be business travelers or whatever. Nobody goes – nobody undergoes the kind of scrutiny that these families, these individuals undergo.
And second point on that is that let’s remember – and we do have to constantly remind folks of this – is that these families, these people, almost 100 percent of them, are fleeing the same kind of violence, the same kind of barbarity, the same kind of horrific attacks that we’ve seen in Belgium and we’ve seen elsewhere. These individuals are victims. And so that’s why they’re refugees, why they’re fleeing, and why we need to provide them as much as we can with shelter.
Now, your first question was about visa waiver and ESTA travel. My understanding is that there are new forms – I’m not sure whether they’ve been officially rolled out yet – that individuals, would-be travelers would have to fill out in order to have their cases re-evaluated, whether they – or whether they – sorry, the word’s gone out of my head.
MR TONER: No, no, no, of course. No, but whether they qualify for visa-free travel. I’m not sure where we’re at on that. I can try to get you updated information about it.
QUESTION: I think (inaudible) --
QUESTION: What you said about the – one second.
QUESTION: Yeah, go ahead.
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: You’ve said about the families, the two – they were two brothers, family members. They were together, family members, Belgian nationals. So where is the – if you get a family in, how do you know that – and you said would-be terrorists. They could be sleeping terrorists, or sleeper cells, whatever you call them.
MR TONER: I mean, of course, again – I mean --
MR TONER: -- I don’t want to go down this rabbit hole, but just to – sorry, what’s your – what was your --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) and the visa-free --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- travel, I mean, you’ve done it for Iranian dual nationals --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- or people who visited Sudan, but these are Belgian citizens --
MR TONER: Oh, I understand. I’m so sorry.
QUESTION: -- who maybe never went to Syria.
MR TONER: Okay, I – yeah.
QUESTION: So what does it – you would have no extra visa procedure for these individuals.
MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, they would be --
QUESTION: I mean, the guys doing these attacks may be guys who don’t fall under any of the things you’ve done so far to improve security.
MR TONER: No, but I mean – look, I mean, first of all, even under visa-free travel, there is a screening process, and we have that. I mean, you know this. And so nobody simply hops a plane and gets off in JFK or wherever and strolls into the United States unaccounted for or screened – or not screened, or unscreened, rather. We’re constantly looking at ways to strengthen all those systems but – and processes, but they exist.
QUESTION: But the President signed a law specifically designed after the attacks in California --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- to strengthen security in light – and strengthen the visa waiver program --
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: -- to deal with the potential threat of people coming to this country to commit attacks.
MR TONER: Correct. Correct.
QUESTION: Now, the people who are committing these attacks aren’t the people who would be affected by these enhanced security necessarily. So are you going to expand that to, say, deal with people like Belgian nationals who may have committed this crime without having visited Sudan in the last five years?
MR TONER: Right. I mean, look --
QUESTION: You understand the issue?
MR TONER: Yeah, no, I understand the question. We don’t have anything, obviously, to announce today. We’re constantly looking at how we can strengthen those screening procedures.
MR TONER: President Erdogan?
QUESTION: Erdogan, yeah, of Turkey just announced that --
MR TONER: He was going to ask the Turkey question.
QUESTION: No, I’m talking about the terrorists.
MR TONER: Okay. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: He said that they arrested him last June, they deported him, they informed the Belgium authorities that he’s a foreign terrorist and so on --
MR TONER: Is that right?
QUESTION: -- but they did not arrest him. I just want to bring it to your attention.
MR TONER: Said, thank you. Thanks. Okay. I’ll – we’ll look into it.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. Two quick questions on Turkey. Constitution court about a month ago ruled to release Cumhuriyet newspaper’s editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara rep Erdem Gul. And there is a lower court case this Friday, and President Erdogan called on lower court to resist and reverse this decision. If this were to happen, this is the first time in history. Do you have any comment? Are you – and the prosecutor of the case just changed today. It looks to very suspicious to many. I was wondering if you are monitoring this case.
MR TONER: Of course we’re monitoring the case. We obviously have spoken to this particular case and these individuals in the past, and expressed our concern about what it says regarding Turkey’s – or Turkish Government’s commitment to the fundamental principle of media freedom. We would simply reiterate our call for Turkish authorities to ensure that all individuals and organizations – and that includes the media, obviously – are free to carry out their work, which is voice opinions freely, criticize freely in accordance with Turkey’s constitutional guarantees. And we’re going to continue to watch this case.
QUESTION: The second question is there is a Turkish national got arrested over the weekend in Miami. He is a close ally of President Erdogan, who in the past praised this individual. Have you got in touch with Turkish Government? Have you received any kind of demand from Turkey about this individual? It’s about Iranian sanctions and how he helped to bust the sanctions in Turkey.
MR TONER: Correct, and I apologize if I --
QUESTION: Reza Zarrab.
MR TONER: But he’s – is he an Iranian?
QUESTION: Turkish and Iranian national.
MR TONER: Let me look into it.
MR TONER: I’ll take the question. I apologize.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. In Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani yesterday said in one interview that the PYD and the PKK are exactly one and the same thing. And he also said that Americans know that they --
MR TONER: I’m sorry, you said the PKK and --
QUESTION: And PYD.
MR TONER: And PYD.
QUESTION: Yeah, YPG.
MR TONER: Sorry, yeah. Finish. I’m sorry.
MR TONER: I just wanted to make sure I had the --
QUESTION: Okay. And he also said that Americans know this very well, but they don’t want to say it, as the top priority is the fight against ISIS, so they turn a blind eye PYD relation with PKK. And this is what your close ally Peshmerga’s leader, Mr. Barzani, said.
MR TONER: Well – and you’re asking me for my reaction and whether --
QUESTION: I want to know, what do you know about PKK and PYD relation?
MR TONER: I mean, we still adhere to what our policy’s been for the past many months, which is that we view the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization. We condemn its – the violence that it carries out against Turkish civilians and citizens. And separately, we have been working with the YPD – or YPG, rather, in parts of Syria as part of a number of groups we’re working with who are actively fighting and dislodging Daesh or ISIL from territory it controls.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t had disagreements with them when they try to hold territory or not – or declare semi-autonomous self-rule zones. We disagree with them on that and we have frank discussions with them about that. But they are part of a number of groups that have been very effective in taking the fight against – or taking the fight, rather, to Daesh. I respect his opinion, just as we respect and listen to the Turkish authorities when they express their concerns to us, but we still view this as two separate entities.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Sir, India has conducted a submarine launch ballistic missile last week with a range of 3,500 kilometers. So does it concern United States that India has started nuclearization of the Indian Ocean?
MR TONER: Well, I’d say we’re concerned by any nuclear and missile developments that could potentially increase the risk to nuclear security or lower the threshold for nuclear use. And so we continue to urge all states with nuclear weapons to exercise restraint regarding their missile and nuclear capabilities.
QUESTION: Sir, but the nuclear weapons in the submarines create issues of command and control and unauthorized use. Are you raising such concerns with India?
MR TONER: Well, I don’t want to get into specifics of our bilateral conversations with India, but we’ve long encouraged efforts to promote confidence building, stability, and discourage any actions that might destabilize the region such as what I just mentioned.
MR TONER: Syria, sure.
QUESTION: Yeah, a very quick question.
MR TONER: Yeah, of course.
QUESTION: There were reports today that the Syrian forces or Syrian army – Syrian regime forces are about to take Palmyra. Do you have any information on that?
MR TONER: I have seen those reports. I’m not sure if I have any specific information on – you’re talking about the ISIL-controlled – yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah, okay.
MR TONER: Yeah, in Palmyra. I don’t have any specific updates on that. I mean, we have continued to see, more broadly speaking, the regime carry out attacks on or strikes or alleged violations of the cessation of hostilities, and we’re clearly going to investigate all of those through the task force, but --
QUESTION: This is against Daesh, though.
MR TONER: That’s what I’m saying. I don’t have any specific to this. I don’t have any information. I’ll take the question.
QUESTION: Do you want – do you want to see --
QUESTION: So – exactly on this point – sorry, Brad.
QUESTION: Yeah. Do you want to see --
QUESTION: -- the regime retake Palmyra or do you prefer that it stays in Daesh’s hands?
MR TONER: That’s truly a – look, I think what we would like to see is the political negotiation, that political track, pick up steam – that’s part of the reason why the Secretary’s in Moscow today – so we can get a political process underway and deepen and strengthen the cessation of hostilities into a real ceasefire. And then we --
QUESTION: You’re not answering my question, are you?
MR TONER: I know I’m not. (Laughter.) I’m giving you a broader view.
MR TONER: And then we can all increase our efforts to go after Daesh and dislodge it.
QUESTION: Let me just take a quick crack at it from another angle.
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: I mean, you guys said that the fight against Daesh would continue, right? That Daesh would be – continue to be targeted, the same thing with Jabhat al-Nusrah and so on. Now, we know that Palmyra – Tadmor – is occupied by Daesh. So why in this case would this be considered a violation of the ceasefire?
MR TONER: It doesn’t, and I didn’t mean to necessarily convey that. I was talking about violations that we’ve seen on the part of the regime against opposition parties who are part of the ceasefire or the cessation of hostilities. No, I mean, look, I mean, broadly speaking, it’s not a great choice, an either/or, but – which is worse, Daesh or the regime – but we think Daesh is probably the greater evil in this case.
MR TONER: I think I do. Hold on one second. You’re talking about – I have two, Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid.
MR TONER: We’re – as you noted from the Secretary’s statement on Friday, we’re alarmed by reports that Egyptian authorities have reopened an investigation of local NGOs and begun to pursue measures against their employees who are working to document human rights abuses and defend the freedoms enshrined in Egypt’s constitution. We believe firmly that these NGOs play a legitimate and necessary role in any country and are critical to advancing universal human rights, giving voice to citizen views, and acting as appropriate checks on government. So we would urge Egypt to cease its actions that, frankly, have a chilling effect on civil society and to take actions that ensure these and other human rights NGOs can operate effectively and freely.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on (inaudible), please?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, sir.
MR TONER: Are you done, Abigail?
QUESTION: I was just going to ask if there was any follow-up between this building and the Egyptian Government after that statement or interaction regarding these cases?
MR TONER: I’m not aware. I’d have to look into that. I don’t know that we’ve – I mean, we constantly, obviously, are in contact and talk about these issues with the Egyptian Government, but I’m not aware that we’ve had a specific interaction over this statement.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Sir, in preparation of the Nuclear Security Summit, Pakistan has ratified amended Convention on Protection of Nuclear Materials. So they also hosted a rare meeting of international nuclear security experts in Pakistan last week. Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins was there. So do you believe these activities are supportive in making nuclear summit a success?
MR TONER: Are you talking – again, just to be perfectly clear, the ratification --
QUESTION: About the Nuclear Security Summit.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, the – so Pakistan has ratified amended Convention on the Protection of Nuclear Materials.
MR TONER: Okay, right. That’s right. So we, of course – first of all, we look forward to Prime Minister Sharif’s visit for the Nuclear Security Summit next week, and we do – as you noted, the announced ratification – we do welcome Pakistan’s announcement that it would ratify – or that it ratified, rather, the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. My understanding is that there’s still paperwork that needs to be formally deposited with the IAEA and that there’s, I think, a number of countries – I think eight more countries – that need to also ratify the amendment before it would come to force. But we certainly welcome it.
QUESTION: Sir, lastly, it’s about Daesh. So United States has said that it will go after Daesh everywhere in the world. So if we see in Afghanistan, Daesh is getting stronger day by day. I mean, they have – they are fighting with the Taliban. They are fighting with the Afghan forces. What really United States are doing to fight the Daesh in Afghanistan?
MR TONER: Well, we are working with Afghan Security Forces not only in their – to improve their – well, in general to improve their capability, to improve their ability to fight, to train them, and that’s not just to deal with, obviously, the resurgent Taliban attacks, but also to deal with any other terrorist groups that may, as I said, seek out safe havens to operate within, like Daesh.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Sorry, one more. One more question, really quickly. Sorry.
QUESTION: Do you have a comment about Under Secretary Rose Gottemoeller’s comment that the White House is considering the possibility of President Obama visiting Japan in the context of his trip to Japan for the G7 summit? Do you have – could you flesh out a little bit more about what she meant in making that comment?
MR TONER: I’m aware of the comment. It’s just not appropriate for me at State Department to speak to any potential travel of the President, so I’m just going to --
QUESTION: But she also said --
MR TONER: I’d refer you to the White House.
QUESTION: She said that in her trip to the same location – Hiroshima, we assume the peace memorial – that it was going to be in observance of the losses for all of World War II. That might be the White House thinking. Is that how the State Department would see this trip, if it did happen? I know that’s hypothetical.
MR TONER: It is a little hypothetical. So look, again, I’m not going to speak to potential travel by the President. Obviously, the invitations are out there. We’ll assess that, and when we do have announcements to make, we’ll make those.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:55 p.m.)