Daily Press Briefing - April 27, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
.2:15 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Let’s start off – I have a few things at the top. First of all, as you know, we started yesterday our Free the Press campaign. The case we’re highlighting today comes from Uzbekistan, where a newspaper editor named Muhammad Bekjanov has remained in prison since 1999 – and that’s the longest ongoing incarceration of a journalist in the world, by many accounts.
Mr. Bekjanov, whose newspaper called Freedom, or Erk in Uzbek language, published articles advocating for democratic reform, is thought to have been arrested for his public criticism of President Karimov’s administration as well as his affiliation with a peaceful political opposition party. Mr. Bekjanov has reportedly suffered serious health problems since his incarceration.
We call on the Government of Uzbekistan to release Mr. Bekjanov, and to take steps necessary to create space for independent journalists to work free – or without fear of violence. We also urge the Government of Uzbekistan to allow international observers to visit prisons, and to grant all citizens access to full due process in accordance with international commitments.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: -- something very briefly about that?
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: That picture --
MR TONER: Yeah, I know. I apologize.
QUESTION: I mean, he was – last year he was also part of this.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: Because I recognize that picture.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: So just – do you know: Have any of the people who have previously been highlighted by – in this campaign --
MR TONER: Been released?
MR TONER: I’ll check. That’s a good question, actually.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if it’s had --
MR TONER: I don’t have that in front of me, but that’s a very fair question.
QUESTION: -- if you know what the effect is.
MR TONER: We’ll check on that, absolutely.
And then, as many of you probably have already heard, it’s 100 days until the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. So to mark that auspicious date, the first ever – these are the first-ever games held in South America – the U.S. Department of State announces its #USinRio campaign to help U.S. citizens prepare for travel to Rio de Janeiro this summer. To help them prepare for their trip to Brazil, we also published a fact sheet on travel.state.gov, which is a one-stop shop for travel information, and there you’ll find links to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program – so-called STEP – as well as U.S. and Rio smartphone app and other resources to ensure that U.S. citizens remain informed and connected. The campaign also launched an interactive blog as well as a video series showcasing American athletes in action.
On Equatorial Guinea, the United States is concerned about the political environment in Equatorial Guinea both before and after its April 24th presidential election. There’ve been numerous credible reports of government security services using excessive force, obstructing and dispersing opposition rallies, and intimidating civil society activists. We’re especially concerned that the security services violently attacked the headquarters of the opposition party, Ciudadanos por la Innovacion, on April 22nd – two days before the presidential election – causing serious injuries among those inside. Members of Ciudadanos por la Innovacion have since had their freedom of movement restricted in Malabo, in Bata, and more than 60 people remain detained without charges. We call on the government to permit its citizens to exercise their democratic rights and for all in Equatorial Guinea to address political differences through peaceful and consensual dialogue.
And then last thing – and this is about the attacks that occurred, I believe yesterday, on the Syrian Civil Defense station in al-Atareb, Syria. The United States is appalled by Monday’s multiple aerial strikes, reportedly by the Assad regime, on a Syrian Civil Defense station in the town of, as I noted, al-Atareb in Aleppo province, where at least five members of the civil defense are believed to have been killed and many more innocent people were injured.
This attack fits with the Assad regime’s abhorrent pattern of striking first responders, over 100 whom – of whom have been killed in action. Many are killed in so-called double-tap strikes, where warplanes return to a strike zone after first responders have gathered to assist victims, and the Syrian Civil Defense station in al-Atareb was reportedly hit five times on Monday.
We condemn in the strongest terms any such attacks and we urge Russia to use its influence and press the Assad regime to fulfill its commitments under UNSCR 2254 and immediately stop any further attacks of this nature. We also commend the heroic members of the Syrian Civil Defense who’ve saved more than 40,000 people by serving as impartial emergency responders on the front lines performing search and rescue missions following brutal attacks often perpetrated by the Assad regime and its allies. And the United States will continue to support this group and their courageous and tireless efforts to protect the Syrian people.
That’s it. Matt.
QUESTION: On the last one --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: -- you commend this group, you’re going to continue to support them, and yet you revoked the visa of their leader. I don’t – that makes zero sense to me.
MR TONER: Well --
QUESTION: What – what’s exactly going on?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, this group, and I would precisely make that --
QUESTION: Yeah, but this is the guy who is the leader of this group who the head of USAID lionized in a – and her – that she lauded him --
MR TONER: Sure. Sure.
QUESTION: -- in a speech at the event that he was supposed to be accepting --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- an award that he couldn't get here for because the State Department canceled his visa while he was in the middle – while he was in midair, presumably, over the Atlantic so that when he arrived at Dulles, he was promptly thrown on the next plane back to Turkey. And now here you are talking about how wonderful his group is. I just don’t understand how it works.
MR TONER: So a couple responses. One is, unfortunately, we can’t speak to individual visa cases. I think broadly speaking, though, on any visa case we are constantly looking at new information, so-called continually vetting travel or records. And if we do have new information that we believe this – an individual --
QUESTION: But --
MR TONER: -- let me finish – would pose a security risk, we’ll certainly act on that. I can’t speak again specifically to this case, but what I can talk about is this group. And this group, as I said, has saved some 40,000 lives, that are first responders, they operate in a combat zone, and the fact that they’re being singled out and hit by the Syrian regime is, frankly, cause for a concern. And we do support this group. We do support their efforts to save lives in what is admittedly a very complex and convoluted battlefield scene.
And to speak to your broader – to say that this group’s – which I think is the implication of your question, that they somehow have ties to --
QUESTION: No, I’m not suggesting that at all.
MR TONER: Then – okay.
QUESTION: I’m saying that it just strikes me as a bit odd that you’re saying that this group is wonderful and does such a great job and you’re commending them for their heroism, and yet, this – you’re doing this just 10 days after the leader of this group, who was supposed to be – who got his visa revoked and wasn’t allowed to travel here. I understand there was an attack that killed some of its members, and I know that that’s the immediate cause of it --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- but it just strikes me as being a bit inconsistent if you say that this group is wonderful, and yet, you also ban its leader from coming to the States to collect an award for which – and you say you’re going to continue to support the group. I mean, if you have reason to revoke his visa, that he could be a security threat or something like that, why would you continue to support --
MR TONER: But again – but again, I’m trying to separate this individual from the group, which we believe is --
QUESTION: All right. So the guy is – you’re saying that basically he is suspect but his group is not?
MR TONER: Well, again, I can’t speak to the specific allegations against him, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, not if I --
MR TONER: No, I’m sorry, I – my hands are tied too but --
QUESTION: All right. The other thing --
MR TONER: -- but yes, we’re not condemning the group in any way whatsoever.
QUESTION: Off --
MR TONER: We believe it’s doing good work.
QUESTION: Could I --
QUESTION: If he is the leader of the group, how do you support this group and he is not allowed to get into the States? This is the question.
MR TONER: I understand that and all I can say is that --
QUESTION: How can you separate the leader of the group from the group?
MR TONER: Well, he’s one individual in the group.
QUESTION: But the leader of the group.
MR TONER: And any individual – again, I’m broadening my language here for specific reasons, but any individual in any group suspected of ties or relations with extremist groups or that we had believed to be a security threat to the United States, we would act accordingly. But that does not, by extension, mean we condemn or would cut off ties to the group for which that individual works for.
QUESTION: Okay. It just seems a little odd.
QUESTION: Could I just follow up on the group? Which group is --
MR TONER: Sophisticated. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I mean, they are a civil defense group, right? They are --
QUESTION: The White Helmets?
QUESTION: Who are --
MR TONER: The White Helmets. So this is a group --
QUESTION: White Helmets. Okay, I understand.
MR TONER: So, yeah, this is the Syrian Civil Defense Group. Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you know – I understand about the White Helmets. Do you know who finances them, how they operate, who are they supported by, what kind of organization they have? How do you get your information from them and so on?
MR TONER: Well – well, I can say we provide them with --
QUESTION: We – you do know a little bit.
MR TONER: Well, I can tell you that we provide, through USAID, about $23 million in assistance to them.
MR TONER: I can say that they’ve saved over 40,000 lives, as I just mentioned at the – in the topper by acting as first responders. They go into combat zones, they save people after attacks. We’ve seen no action on the part of this group writ large that indicates in any way that they’re nothing but an impartial group that – like any humanitarian organization – works across lines of control and is in contact with a range of groups to facilitate their life-saving efforts. And that’s – again, we’ve talked about this the last couple days. Aleppo is --
QUESTION: I understand that.
MR TONER: -- a very complex situation. We understand that. And for these groups to operate, they have to be able to operate within the milieu on which they’re working.
QUESTION: Mark, but can you ask for some – I mean, this just seems bizarre to me. You’re giving this guy and his group $23 million. Yes, they do good work, they save lives, but you’ve revoked his visa for some reason and you won’t say why and it just doesn’t make any sense. Why is the U.S. taxpayer supporting a group whose leader you have banned from coming to the States?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, I’m always willing to try to get more information.
MR TONER: In this case, I’m a bit restricted by the fact that this is --
QUESTION: Just – well, I know, but it just --
MR TONER: I can’t talk about a specific visa.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- and that is on the – that Olympics thing. Do you have – is there any kind of an estimate about how many Americans – non-athletes – are going to be – plan to go? Or is that not your --
MR TONER: No, I mean, we – I don’t think we have a firm number yet. I wish we had kind of previous numbers here.
QUESTION: Well, yeah, based on what you’ve seen --
MR TONER: Yeah, no, I’ll get that for you.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: It’s a fair question.
QUESTION: And then one other thing. It’s unrelated, but this is just a housekeeping item about a question I asked yesterday on --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- this email that Judicial Watch has highlighted as – and they say that it shows that you guys hid this email which would have shown two years earlier than we – which would have uncovered or would – which would have shown the existence of former Secretary Clinton’s private email --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- two years before we actually did learn about it.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: I understand that there is an answer, there is an explanation.
MR TONER: There is. So we don’t generally comment on matters of litigation, but in this case, there has been some confusion about – or rising from what was an administrative error in the correspondence in which the department said that the document in question was withheld on November – in November 2014, and that date was incorrect. So all the facts in this case or this – the complete facts, rather, surrounding this document are actually in a court filing, a public court filing from July 2015. And we would recommend that folks who are interested would look at that court filing.
But in summary, it describes that the department received the documents in June 2015 from members of former Secretary Clinton’s senior staff and did not withhold it until that time. So there’s a pretty big discrepancy in the dates there and we regret, obviously, any confusion that was caused by our error in correspondence.
QUESTION: So what was the – so the correct date instead of --
MR TONER: Correct date was June 2015, so – they said withheld. We – the original correspondence that we received the document – or was withheld, rather, November 2014. So a difference of 10 months --
QUESTION: Well, yeah --
MR TONER: -- or less than that.
QUESTION: -- except that --
QUESTION: Eight months.
MR TONER: Eight months, thank you. Clearly not a mathematician.
QUESTION: Well --
MR TONER: What’s the matter, Matt?
QUESTION: So you --
MR TONER: So --
QUESTION: So I don’t understand what --
MR TONER: Yeah, that’s okay. So in which --
QUESTION: I just don’t get what --
MR TONER: So the department --
QUESTION: That’s – not – so not only did whoever wrote this letter get the year wrong, but they got the month wrong.
MR TONER: Right. They just had the date wrong. They said that – they said – the department said that the document in question was withheld in November 2014. That was just incorrect. It was actually received in 2015 and I think withheld in July 2015.
QUESTION: Okay, but I mean, that seems like a pretty --
MR TONER: It is. It’s a --
QUESTION: -- egregious clerical error --
MR TONER: It’s a mistake. I mean I --
QUESTION: -- especially on something that you know is sensitive and that – and with a group that we know, the Judicial --
MR TONER: Again, we apologize for the mistake and we own it.
QUESTION: Right, but – okay, so have you told them? Because they were – they made some pretty – they made some pretty big allegations about this yesterday.
MR TONER: Well, we did. We let them know. I believe we sent them a correspondence admitting --
QUESTION: Have they --
MR TONER: -- this mistake and --
QUESTION: Have they acknowledged it?
MR TONER: I don’t know.
QUESTION: I mean --
MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: I’m just curious because it doesn’t – November 2014 – I mean, they don’t even have the same letters in them – June, November and – June, I mean, unless they have an E and an N --
MR TONER: I don’t – Matt, I don’t think it was – I don’t think it was a matter of misspelling the month or --
QUESTION: I know, but how do you mix it --
MR TONER: -- flubbing the year. I think they simply --
QUESTION: -- on something this sensitive that --
MR TONER: No, no, no. I think what --
QUESTION: -- you know that’s going to attract so much --
MR TONER: I mean, look, I’m conjecturing here, purely conjecturing --
MR TONER: -- which is always dangerous to do from the State Department podium, but I’m thinking that they just – whoever was writing the letter just simply was looking --
MR TONER: -- at a different date and put that date in the letter, it wasn’t picked up, and it was just blatantly an error and we own it.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: Okay? I don’t think it was a matter of May versus March or something like that.
QUESTION: Well, then, I mean – well, no, you could find some – okay.
MR TONER: It just wasn’t – it wasn’t – it wasn’t a spelling error or anything like that.
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, clearly.
MR TONER: But go – yeah.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Regarding this ship that you believe is carrying oil illicitly exported from eastern Libya, one, do you know where the ship is now?
MR TONER: No. I mean, I – what I had heard was it – what I heard is that it attempted actually to arrive or to – I don’t know what – to make port in Malta but was prevented from doing so. I don’t know where it is at present. I just don’t have a --
QUESTION: And what are you doing now to try to prevent or to ensure that the oil – if, as you suggest, it is – it has been illicitly removed from Libya – that the oil does not – that the ship can’t dock anywhere and that the oil does not get sold to anyone?
MR TONER: So the Libyans have actually notified the UN Libya sanctions committee that there was this attempt to export Libyan oil illicitly, so the UN Security Council obviously condemn attempts to do this, to export crude oil from Libya, and it does permit the council to designate vessels involved in these oil – illicit oil exports and authorizes member states to inspect these kind of – these vessels on the high seas. I’m unaware that that has happened yet.
QUESTION: Either one? The possibility of a designation --
MR TONER: Right, exactly. Exactly.
QUESTION: -- or --
MR TONER: Or that.
QUESTION: Or boarding?
MR TONER: But, I mean, I believe this is currently being vetted in the Security Council.
QUESTION: And do – so do you need – do – you basically need a Security Council vote to vote on designating it, or you can unilaterally designate it?
MR TONER: I’m – well, this is – it’s actually in the sanctions committee. I’m – again, process-wise, I’m not sure that it needs an actual vote, but I think that action rests with the sanctions committee.
We, for our part, have just been in touch with international partners on this issue, and we’re continuing to monitor it very closely. But I don’t have – and I’ll try to get that for you, where the ship is actually currently.
QUESTION: Okay. A couple more on this.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: As you’re I think aware, the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation has said that the company that initiated this shipment – it’s called DSA Consultancy, which is registered in the UAE.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: Have you reached out to the UAE to ask them who this company is and why they’re buying what you regard as – why they’re making what you regard as an illicit transaction to buy this oil?
MR TONER: Right. So we are – as you noted, this is an Indian-flagged vessel, but we have also seen reports that it was chartered by a UAE-based company. I know, as I’ve said, we’ve been in touch with other governments in the region. I don’t know that we specifically raised with the UAE why this is – whether this is a UAE-based firm or what their information – or what they have in terms of information about this firm. I can take that question.
QUESTION: Why wouldn’t you ask them?
MR TONER: I would assume we would, I just don’t know. I just can’t confirm it, that’s all.
QUESTION: And then one other one from me: The company itself issued a statement today saying that the – it didn’t – that it believes the shipment is legitimate and that it has not been notified otherwise. And it – in its statement it says that the, quote, “ultimate beneficiary,” close quote, of the contract for the oil was the central bank of Libya. And it goes on to say that it will, quote, “always work strictly within the local and international legal frameworks. As of today, the company, DSA, is not in receipt of any legal basis for challenging the cargo’s legitimacy,” close quote. Have you gone to this company or tried to find them to make your argument to them that it’s not a legitimate transaction?
MR TONER: Yeah, I don’t know that we have, and I frankly think it would be incumbent on the Libyans to do so. The – our – as we said yesterday, we believe that all purchase of Libyan oil must continue to be through the National Oil Corporation which is based in Tripoli, and that’s to maintain the stability of the markets and the credibility of Libya’s oil in international oil markets. We maintain that, but I don’t know that the – if the Libyans themselves have raised it with these – with this company. I don’t know that we have directly.
QUESTION: Can we move on? Can I go to another topic, if I may?
MR TONER: Sure. Yeah.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: I mean, on the auspicious occasion of Press Freedom Day, there are two Palestinians – one, a Palestine TV journalist that was arrested a week ago, Mujahed al-Saadi, in Hebron; and then yesterday – a couple days ago, Omar Nazzal, who is the head of the Palestinian Journalists’ Association, was on his way to a conference and was arrested. I mean, you began by imploring a certain government to release a certain journalist. Would you call on the Israelis to release Palestinian journalists?
MR TONER: Said, I don’t have the specifics of either of these cases in front of me, so I – it’s hard for me to be able to speak to the --
QUESTION: I have asked you about this for the past week.
MR TONER: I just don’t know the allegations. I don’t know – sure.
QUESTION: I have asked about this for the past week.
MR TONER: I understand, Said.
QUESTION: Could you please look into it?
MR TONER: We can certainly look into it. I think generally speaking, until we know the specific facts surrounding the case and the allegations against these individuals, it would be premature for us to speak about it.
QUESTION: Okay. It’s not only these two individuals. It is actually an accelerated effort to arrest journalists, Palestinian journalists, all throughout the occupied territories. So perhaps you could also look into that.
MR TONER: We’ll certainly take a look at it.
QUESTION: I also have a question about a Palestinian astrophysicist that was arrested on his way to Jordan, Imad Barghouthi. He’s a U.S.-trained – in fact taught at U.S. universities, worked on a NASA program and so on.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Could you look into that?
MR TONER: We sure will. I don’t have – I mean, I also would encourage you to speak to the Israeli authorities about his arrest.
QUESTION: Okay. All right. So – okay. Well, then let me go on to another topic.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Today a Palestinian young woman, 23 years old, and her 16-year-old brother were shot, and even if you take the Israeli narrative, the Israeli side of the story saying that they were coming towards the checkpoint and then they turned back, but they were shot dead – I mean, would you consider that to be excessive use of force? I mean, the young woman was pumped with 15 bullets. And even the Israeli spokeswoman said that they were going back, and apparently they mistook the road. I mean, they were – they got on the motorway instead of the pathway through the checkpoint. Do you have any comment on that? Is that an excessive use of force?
QUESTION: I have several on Ukraine, and this is in reference to Assistant Secretary Nuland’s trip. First of all, if you could clarify a couple of things that she said in a speech today. One was that it’s time to start locking up people who have ripped off the Ukrainian population for too long, and time to end the corruption. Can you elaborate on who she’s referring to there, and has the U.S. been encouraging the Ukrainian Government to prosecute corrupt individuals?
MR TONER: Well, we’ve certainly been, as we do in many countries but specifically with respect to Ukraine, we’ve certainly been encouraging the Ukrainian Government to combat what has – had become or has become pervasive corruption over the past years. I think the Ukrainian people, frankly, and those who protested on the Maidan demanded that as well. And so – and frankly, the government has tried to pass reforms, has tried to go after some of these corrupt individuals, and that work continues. So I think it was simply – she was simply highlighting the fact that corruption continues to be a major concern to average Ukrainians who are seeking or looking for stronger political institutions, and that includes law enforcement and stronger attempts to really bring that corruption under control. Again, these are I think aspirations that they have expressed since the Maidan in attempting to build stronger democratic institutions within Ukraine.
QUESTION: She also said that one of the decisions made at Hanover is the U.S. will now accelerate its own diplomacy in close coordination with the Normandy format leaders, with Germany and France, to see Minsk implemented. What did she mean by that?
MR TONER: Well, as you said, she said one of the decisions made at Hanover was that they’re going to accelerate their own diplomacy in close coordination, as you note, with the Normandy Format leaders to see Minsk implemented – implemented, rather. And this means restoring security and fundamentally – or one of the fundamental parts of that is OSCE access across the Donbas, the return of hostages, preparations for Ukrainian elections in Donbas that meet international standards and that are in accord with the Ukrainian constitution, and then, of course, the withdrawal of all heavy weaponry and foreign forces. And the ultimate goal here is to restore Ukraine’s border and sovereignty. These are all parts of the Minsk agreement that have yet to be fulfilled. And so I think she’s simply – was stating that we, the United States, working within the Normandy Format, are going to redouble our efforts to move that process forward.
QUESTION: And then a couple more if I can.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: First of all, regarding the elections in Donbas, is the U.S. pushing for the elections to be held by July?
MR TONER: Fair question. I don’t have a specific timeframe or date. I’m sure she spoke to this. I think that our major concern here is that they be held within – or that meet – that they meet, rather, international standards and are in accord with the Ukrainian constitution. If they can be held by July, as long as they meet those requirements, then I think we would welcome that. But those are the fundamental, I think, things we’re looking to see.
QUESTION: Okay, and then last one --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- concerning Minsk. Is the U.S. insisting on a sequence in which Russia has to first meet its obligations and then Ukraine – secondly, Ukraine would then have to do its part?
MR TONER: No, I mean, I – look, all along we’ve said that both sides need to fulfill the commitments that they made under Minsk. We have seen and we’ve talked about the fact that Ukraine has made some serious steps and serious progress on meeting its own commitments with regard to Minsk. We’ve yet to see the separatists, the Russian-backed separatists, take those same steps. And again, some of the things I’ve just outlined, which are continued violations of the ceasefire along – or along the ceasefire line; frankly, the presence of Russian troops still in eastern Ukraine – again, these are all things that need to be addressed by the separatists and by Russia in order to fulfill their Minsk commitments.
So I don’t know if we’re – I wouldn’t say necessarily we’re looking for a tit-for-tat kind of exchange here. I think we’re looking for progress on both sides. We have seen the Ukrainian Government make progress. We’ve not seen that same level of progress by the separatists and by Russia.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: I’ve got a couple. One is that for the last month there’s been all sorts of talk around town about how Treasury, in coordination with State, would be moving to ease or clarify rules having to do with transactions with Iran. The Administration has said repeatedly over and over not to expect anything in terms of new access for Iran to the financial system or direct access to U.S. dollars. Secretary Kerry met on Friday with Foreign Minister Zarif (inaudible). Well, just minutes ago – at 2:39, according to my phone – the Treasury Department released new FAQs on doing business with Iran, so my – which seek to clarify the rules. So I want to know: Is this something that was worked out with Secretary Kerry and Secretary Zarif? I realize this is a Treasury issue, but did he tell Foreign Minister Zarif that this was going to be coming when they met on Friday?
MR TONER: Matt, I wasn’t in New York. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t inside the room when they met. I think if I had to characterize it, I mean, the Secretary was very clear that we were going to continue to meet our obligations under the JCPOA and make clear or set forth as clearly as possible to foreign banks and other businesses interested in doing business with Iran what they could do or what they had to do in terms of complying with existing sanctions. So this sounds like that’s in that vein.
QUESTION: Well, okay – wait.
MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m just asking because Treasury doesn’t do a briefing --
MR TONER: No, of course. It’s okay.
QUESTION: -- and so I want to ask here. But I want to know if this is it. Is there more coming in terms of trying to ease the fears of foreign businesses and the Iranians or --
MR TONER: So nothing --
QUESTION: Or --
MR TONER: Sure. Nothing specifically to announce, but of course we’re going to continue to, as we’ve said, consult with foreign governments, foreign banks, as well as other financial institutions and try to, as I said, just clarify what the rules are.
QUESTION: The second one on Iran has to do with this – Senator Cotton --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- has put an amendment in some bill – I can’t remember what it is exactly – but that would stop or prevent the Administration from buying this heavy water from – your colleague at the White House said that the President would veto it – the bill if it got to him with this language in it. And he said that it was an ideological amendment – I can’t remember what his exact words – ideological provision.
MR TONER: I think he said “oppose ideological policy riders,” is the --
QUESTION: Got you.
MR TONER: You can quote Josh.
QUESTION: Ideological policy riders.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And then your – he also noted that Senator Cotton – or had – he said that Senator Cotton is doing everything he can, or has vowed to do everything he can to try and stop the implementation of the nuclear deal. My question is this: Does the nuclear deal require the United States to buy Iran’s excess heavy water?
MR TONER: No, I don’t believe it does.
MR TONER: I mean, I think this was just a, frankly, a – if I could put it this way – it was a win-win. I mean, we needed heavy water and we were able to buy it off of them as an outcome or a byproduct or whatever from the nuclear deal – the fact that they had this heavy water on hand to sell in the international market.
QUESTION: Right, but what I’m asking about is --
MR TONER: But I don’t believe – no, I don’t believe it’s – I certainly don’t believe --
QUESTION: Right. I mean, if he --
MR TONER: My understanding is that it’s not incumbent on --
QUESTION: So if this bill were to become legislation and the President didn’t veto it, Iran could still sell its heavy – excess heavy water elsewhere, right?
MR TONER: That’s my understanding, yes.
QUESTION: So how is this – how is this – how does the Administration make it the case that this is an ideological attempt by Senator Cotton to destroy --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- the JCPOA if, in fact, it doesn’t? I mean, you – the United States would not be violating its end of the deal if it did not buy Iran’s excess heavy water, right?
MR TONER: Sure. Again, I think that – and again, without – I’ll – I mean, Josh certainly and the White House can speak for – speak to this issue better than I can but --
QUESTION: Yeah. They can, but I don’t think that they got that question that I’m asking you right now.
MR TONER: No, no, that’s okay. I think that – no, no, that’s okay.
QUESTION: Maybe they did and I missed it. But my question is: How can the Administration say – I mean, maybe it is his intent to try and destroy – do everything he can to destroy it. But – the deal. But preventing the Administration from buying Iran’s heavy water does not mean that – make Iran – make the United States in violation of the JCPOA, right?
MR TONER: My understanding is it is not required under the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Okay. So where is this argument coming from?
MR TONER: So I am again conjecturing that I think that the idea is that Iran does have this byproduct from its implementation of the JCPOA and that it – if it is prevented from selling this heavy water on the open market to some countries, such as the United States --
QUESTION: But this doesn’t prevent it from – this doesn’t prevent it --
MR TONER: -- no, I said just the United States – that it would be a hindrance to it complying with the JCPOA. But I don’t have any more detail to provide.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, there are many other countries that are --
MR TONER: There are other – there are other buyers.
QUESTION: -- possible purchasers of --
MR TONER: There are. I don’t have any more detail.
QUESTION: Sir, I have --
QUESTION: So this would – so this is – so that argument is not correct? It’s not rooted in fact, right?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to speak to whether it’s --
QUESTION: Sir, I have a question --
QUESTION: Can we go back to Syria?
QUESTION: I have a follow-up on that. Has that transaction yet, which I believe briefers said last would take a couple of weeks --
MR TONER: I think it is taking a couple of weeks, yeah. I think I have --
QUESTION: So it has not yet been consummated?
MR TONER: It hasn’t arrived in Oak Ridge yet, which I believe was its ultimate destination.
QUESTION: Right, but my question is less whether it’s arrived there --
MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- but – sure, no – but whether the transaction has been consummated – in other words, whether you’ve taken delivery of it wherever and you’ve paid the Iranians for it.
MR TONER: I don’t believe that’s taken place yet.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Let me just go back for a minute to the White Helmets.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Do they operate in, let’s say, rebel-controlled areas freely? I mean, do they move about in that area? Are they just targeted by the regime or --
MR TONER: So my understanding is that – sure. My understanding is that, like I said, like many of these humanitarian organizations that operate in that environment --
MR TONER: -- that operate in that environment --
MR TONER: -- that they cross lines. So if it’s Nusrah-held territory, they will go in the Nusrah-held territory, again, to help civilians, to aid civilians in the aftermath of attacks. And so, again, I don’t know beyond that that they – but they do move within the various factions on the ground certainly around Aleppo.
QUESTION: And to the best of your knowledge, are there any other government or groups that are aiding them beside USAID?
MR TONER: That’s a good question. I don’t have that in front of me. I can take that question.
QUESTION: Okay. And on the --
MR TONER: We’ll get more detail for you on that.
QUESTION: Okay. On the negotiations that are ongoing, Mr. de Mistura said yesterday that actually there seems to be, like, some movement or positive movement between the groups and there seem to be the opposition that is supported by Russia, that it seems to – sort of getting its act together and they’re trying to coalesce with the others. Can you update us on what is happening on that score?
MR TONER: Well, I don’t have a lot to add. Obviously, as you mentioned, U.S. – UN Special Envoy de Mistura is going to – or he is actually going to brief the Security Council later today, and I believe he, after that, is going to have a statement to the press and take some questions. So we look forward to his assessment.
We did talk about that last week that he did say this round of talks did progress in the fact that it got beyond issues of process and logistics and actually put the subject of political transition front – sort of front and center in the talks, and he viewed that legitimately as progress. So he was encouraged by that. I think that – I’m referring back to his comments, I think, last Friday. We still don’t have a date for the restart of talks. We obviously want to see the parties get back to Geneva as quickly as possible, but as we said yesterday – as I said yesterday, the security situation and the fragility of the cessation of hostilities right now on the ground is a strong – strongly hinders that from – that process from moving forward because the opposition, rightly so, is asking, well, how it can participate in talks in Geneva when its forces are coming under attack.
So what we need to see at the same – we need to see very soon is the ceasefire, the – all sides that are party to the cessation of hostilities to restrain from ongoing combat or ongoing actions against other groups, most of what we’d seen, as we talked about with the regime carrying out airstrikes and carrying out other strikes against opposition groups. So we need to see all sides refrain from further action. We need to see the cessation of hostilities regain traction, if you will, and then we can get the Geneva talks back on track.
QUESTION: Mark, have you seen --
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: -- Michael’s – Michael Ratney’s statement on the cessation?
MR TONER: I have seen Michael Ratney’s statement.
QUESTION: What’s the main message? Is he calling the Syrian opposition groups to fight al-Nusrah groups or to leave their positions and go far from al-Nusrah’s positions?
MR TONER: No, I don’t think he was – I think --
QUESTION: What’s the main message?
MR TONER: Sure, sure, that’s – it’s a fair question. I think he was trying to speak to the fact that there was the misperception among some of these opposition groups that we were somehow trying to paint Aleppo as under – that some of these opposition groups were in league with al-Nusrah and other terrorist organizations. And I think he was simply trying to clarify to these groups – and it was a statement in Arabic, as you note, with the intended audience being the Syrian opposition – to just clarify the fact that Aleppo is not under the exclusive control of Nusrah. And there is the perception, and certainly this is something that the Syrian regime and the Russians have supported, that Aleppo is under Nusrah control; therefore, they can simply attack it, and they’re going after known terrorist organizations.
So what he’s trying to clarify there is that is not our belief. Nusrah does control areas of Aleppo without doubt, but there are parts of Nusrah – of Aleppo, rather, that are controlled by those groups that are party to the cessation of hostilities. And so I think that was the major point he was trying to make – to clarify to those groups that we do not have the same or share the same assessment that it’s under Nusrah’s control.
QUESTION: But didn’t he call these groups to fight al-Nusrah or to leave their positions and be --
MR TONER: He said they need to – he said, and I’m quoting here, “The Syrian people and revolutionary factions must continue to reject terrorism in all its forms and distance themselves from the terrorists to the maximum degree possible.”
QUESTION: What does he mean by that – by that phrase that --
MR TONER: Well, I think – I mean, look, what I think he means is that given the fact that the regime is, frankly, looking for excuses to lump all of these groups together under the flag of Nusrah, if you will, that these groups need to very clearly delineate their differences and their separation from Nusrah. And look, we’ve talked about this before, and the Secretary’s spoken to this, is – and frankly, it’s a huge challenge for us when you’re dealing with a situation like Aleppo – is you’ve got a group here, you’ve got another group here, al-Nusrah on the ground, there needs to be a clear delineation between the groups so that you don’t have a Syrian opposition party that is party to the cessation of hostilities being hit by the same airstrikes that might be hitting al-Nusrah.
QUESTION: Last question for me on Syria.
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Russia has proposed placing Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham on the UN sanctions list for ISIL. Do you agree with them?
MR TONER: No, we think that that would have damaging consequences to the cessation, and frankly, at a moment when we’re trying to make sure that it’s – we’re trying to de-escalate the situation on the ground. This has been something they have raised before. They’ve – it’s two opposition groups – Jaysh al-Islam, as you note, and Ahrar al-Sham. And they want to try to designate these groups that, frankly, are right now party to the cessation of hostilities. So we don’t want to see that happen. We don’t believe that that’s constructive.
QUESTION: But they are targeting them in Aleppo and elsewhere.
MR TONER: I agree, and that’s why they need to refrain from targeting these groups that are parties to the cessation of hostilities, and we call on them to do so.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Can I ask you on more on Russia and Syria?
QUESTION: I have --
MR TONER: Of course. Yeah, of course. I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: These seems to – there’s some criticism coming from the Russian foreign ministry concerning the U.S. plans to put the additional troops in Syria, basically saying that the U.S. does not have, quote-unquote, “permission” for these troops to be there. Is there any effort underway to address these concerns that are being presented by Russia?
MR TONER: By “permission,” they mean international --
QUESTION: Syria – consent from Syria.
MR TONER: From the Syrian Government?
MR TONER: I mean, look, we’ve talked about this before. We have the – we do believe we have the legal authority to use military force against ISIL in Syria. We have the 2002 AUMF that’s still in place that we feel strongly provides for – or provides the legal authority, rather, for military operations against ISIL both in Iraq and in Syria. The President has made efforts to encourage Congress to pass a new AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force – forgive me for using an acronym – and that really is up to Congress to take on that task. But we believe the current one passed in 2001 does cover us --
QUESTION: Well --
MR TONER: -- and provides justification.
QUESTION: I don’t – that’s --
MR TONER: Is that not what she was asking?
QUESTION: Well --
MR TONER: Or what are you asking me?
QUESTION: Look, this is not a new – this is not a new --
MR TONER: It sure isn’t.
QUESTION: -- position of – from the Russians and this is not a new explanation from you guys, but that – what you’re referring to is a U.S. law.
MR TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: It doesn’t have universal application. You guys say it does, but what the Russian point is here is that you do – don’t have permission from the Syrian Government nor do you have authorization from the UN Security Council, which would be the two ways that they say that such an operation would be legitimate or legal. That’s correct, is it not?
MR TONER: So what we have said in response is that --
QUESTION: I mean, that’s like saying because --
MR TONER: -- we’re using – but we’re using force – no, no, I understand what you’re saying, Matt. I’m giving you the --
QUESTION: That’s like me – if I’m from Delaware and I say that, “Well, my state has no sales tax,” so I go to New York and I’m going to say, “Well, you know what? I’m going to play by Delaware’s rules and I’m not going to give you your sales tax.”
MR TONER: So in response to that --
MR TONER: -- we have notified the Security Council that we are taking action consistent with Article 51 of the UN Charter, and more broadly speaking, we’ve said that our actions are using force against ISIL and al-Qaida in Syria in the collective self-defense of Iraq and in the U.S. national self-defense. We’re doing so as the Syrian regime has shown it is incapable and possesses neither the will nor the capability to confront these terrorist groups effectively.
QUESTION: But – well, you’re complaining about them confronting them right now.
MR TONER: Matt, we both know what --
QUESTION: Okay, but I mean --
MR TONER: We can argue that one too. I mean, welcome – welcome to --
QUESTION: No, I don’t want to argue it. I just --
MR TONER: No, what we’re --
QUESTION: You’re – no, my question is --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: So you’ve told the Security Council that you’re doing this under Article 51.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: And that’s – and that, according to you guys, is the --
MR TONER: Yeah, legal basis --
QUESTION: Okay. That and the AUMF.
MR TONER: Yes.
MR TONER: I’m sorry, I missed just the first part of your question. I apologize.
MR TONER: Armenia, okay.
QUESTION: Armed forces have once again broke a ceasefire in the front line for the last two days. As one of the member states of the Minsk Group, how is the attitude of the United States towards sabotage?
MR TONER: Well, look, we’ve seen the fragile ceasefire put in place. We were encouraged initially that it appeared to be holding, but obviously tensions remain on the ground. The Secretary has reached out to leaders of both countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Our chairman of the Minsk Group – co-chair, rather – has visited the region. We have remained in contact with both governments, all sides in this conflict, and our message has been consistent, which is that we condemn in the strongest possible terms any violence along the Nagorno-Karabakh line of conflict and we need to see the peace process back up and running and as soon as possible. There is no military solution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
QUESTION: Oh, wait.
QUESTION: One more? I have one more.
MR TONER: Oh. No, wait.
MR TONER: Sorry.
MR TONER: Trying to sneak it in there at the end. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: North Korea announced that the Workers’ Party Congress will be held on May 6th, next Friday.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Deputy Secretary Blinken said in a Senate Foreign Relations hearing this morning that there may be another missile test or nuclear test around this date. Is this your expectation?
MR TONER: You said – I was watching Deputy Secretary Blinken’s testimony. You said – but you said – what did you say? He said he --
QUESTION: He said that there might be another missile test or nuclear test around that date.
MR TONER: Well, yes. Yeah, no, okay. Well, look, I mean – and I spoke to this a little bit yesterday, and obviously the Republic of Korea – the president spoke to this as well, is that we continue to be concerned about the possibility of ongoing missile tests from the DPRK, from North Korea. The fact that there’s this major event coming up, as we’ve seen in the past, that the regime often uses these events or wants to showcase their capabilities, I guess. So yes, it is a concern, a very real one.
QUESTION: I have one --
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: -- at the start, which I missed. Are you willing to comment on any aspect of Trump’s speech regarding U.S. foreign policy?
MR TONER: I mean, not really. Thanks for the opportunity. I mean, he is a candidate for the President of the United States, and he, as a candidate for the President of the United States, is perfectly free to express his viewpoint on foreign policy and what he would – his foreign policy would look like.
QUESTION: Even not – even people who aren’t candidates for President of the United States --
MR TONER: Exactly right.
QUESTION: -- are free to do that, but --
MR TONER: Thank you, Matt, for clarifying that. No, but I’m just saying I don’t have anything to parse about – out of his speech, no.
QUESTION: Well, let me ask you on one point --
MR TONER: Yes sir, of course.
QUESTION: -- that he mentioned. He said that you’re basically giving your partners in the Middle East a free ride, and in fact that you are not naming the enemy. He says you need to name the enemy to defeat it, and he said that enemy is radical Islam. You have any comment on that?
MR TONER: I mean, we --
QUESTION: This is not a term that the Administration has used.
MR TONER: I mean, I – honestly, I --
QUESTION: Why do you shy away from using it? I’m just asking.
MR TONER: Again, what our enemy is or who our enemy is in the Middle East – or, frankly, not just the Middle East – is the bankrupt ideology of ISIL/Daesh and the threat of extremism around the world and the kind of insidious infiltration or influence that that kind of extremism has on people in Europe and other countries. We’ve seen ISIS or ISIL attempt to extend its tentacles into other countries in the region. I couldn’t imagine how we could possibly be more clear in our expression of concern and determination to defeat and destroy that enemy. And so I would express confusion at his comments in that regard.
MR TONER: Gosh, it seems longer than that, but sure. You’re right.
QUESTION: Anyway, he – right; it was a --
MR TONER: It all blurs, but yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- it wasn’t extremely recent.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And while he was there, the foreign minister – the Bahraini foreign minister – talked about the case of this woman who’s been detained, Zainab al-Khawaja, and said that she would be soon granted bail. And I’m just wondering if you followed up on that. Has she been, in fact, released?
MR TONER: Let me follow up on that case, because I remember that, and we have been watching that case closely. So let me get back to you on that. Okay?
MR TONER: Thanks, Matt. Thanks, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)