Daily Press Briefing - May 27, 2016

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
May 27, 2016


12:40 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Hey, guys. Good afternoon.

QUESTION: Good afternoon.

QUESTION: Good afternoon.

MR TONER: We’re slightly – (laughter.) All right.

QUESTION: Should we spread out?

MR TONER: It’s okay. No, you all have your assigned seats. So moving briskly along – and I apologize I’m a little late. I apologize for that, but I do have to leave a little bit after one-ish, and I apologize for that. But welcome to the State Department.



MR TONER: Any questions today? Are you wishing me a good holiday weekend?

QUESTION: I have – I have a few. I do wish you a good holiday weekend.

MR TONER: Thank you. I wish you the same. I’m sorry, yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you. Do you have any comment on Kamal Eldarat and his son Mohamed Kamal Eldarat who are being held in the UAE and whose family members say have made confessions under – after being tortured by Emirati authorities?

MR TONER: So, as you know, we remain concerned about several aspects of this case. It includes allegations of mistreatment, their ongoing health issues as well as prior lack of access to legal representation, the absence of formal charges until their first hearing which was, I think, July – or January 18th, and the lack of consular access at the start of their detention, and we have raised all of these issues with the UAE Government. We did visit them most recently, I think, on May 25th, which was last Wednesday, and we continue to request previous – request regular consular access. And I can also say that embassy officials do plan to be present on Monday at the verdict in their case.

QUESTION: And have you made any kind of request for – other than raising the concerns, have you requested clemency or their release on humanitarian grounds or the dropping of charges against them?

MR TONER: I think what – again, with – as I just said, we have – we do have what we believe are legitimate concerns about their treatment and about the charges against them and we’ve made those clear, and I think we would also simply ask that they be afforded due process and a free and transparent – rather a transparent judicial process.

QUESTION: So you’re not actually asking for them to be freed or for the charges to be dropped?

MR TONER: Again, I just – we believe the UAE – look, we have made our concerns clear, and we are hopeful that the UAE justice system will act accordingly.

QUESTION: And last one from me. You said that you’ve raised all of these issues with the Emirati Government.


QUESTION: At what level? Was that done at the embassy or the Assistant Secretary or the Secretary or --

MR TONER: It’s a fair question. I would have to look into that. Certainly embassy, from our ambassador there, that level, and I believe in some cases higher than that. I don’t have the exact details in front of me.


QUESTION: Not far from this country, in Bahrain, do you have any update on the case of this woman who is held with a baby and which was 50 days after the foreign minister promised to free her when he was speaking at the press conference with the Secretary of State?

MR TONER: Well, unfortunately, I don’t have any updates. We continue to urge the Government of Bahrain to release Ms. al-Khawaja. As you noted, the foreign minister did announce the government’s intention to do so at a press conference he did with Secretary Kerry on April – in April during his visit to Bahrain. We continue to raise the case with the Government of Bahrain, but I don’t have any updates, unfortunately, to provide for you.

QUESTION: Should the Government of Bahrain have made that commitment if they can’t deliver on it or have no intention to?

MR TONER: You’ll have to ask them.

QUESTION: But have you protested the non-delivery of the thing that you were promised?

MR TONER: I think we’ve conveyed our desire to see this case resolved in accordance --

QUESTION: But since the --

MR TONER: -- with what the foreign minister said.

QUESTION: And since what he said – they have repeated that?

MR TONER: You’re saying have we raised it since he made that pronouncement?

QUESTION: Since he made --

MR TONER: I’m certain we have, yes.


QUESTION: And more broadly, Secretary Kerry said at this time that it was essential or critical to respect human rights. Have you seen any improvement in the human rights situation in Bahrain since he spoke?

MR TONER: I don’t have any updates to provide since he spoke. I think, look, broadly speaking Bahrain has made some progress in terms of human rights reforms by creating institutions that improve oversight and accountability over security institutions, but I think we would also say that more work remains to be done.

QUESTION: Okay. Can we go to Syria?

MR TONER: And we continue – sorry, just to finish – and we continue to raise our concerns with Bahrain.


QUESTION: Can we go to Syria?


QUESTION: Yesterday you didn’t address the question of the shoulder flashes that appear on the soldiers – U.S. soldiers who were photographed by AFP in northern Syria. Obviously we talked to the Pentagon about that, but now it’s become a diplomatic incident. The foreign minister of Turkey said some very strong words. He said that if American soldiers are going to be wearing YPG flashes, why don’t they just wear al-Qaida flashes or ISIS flashes? They’re all terrorists and you’re hypocrites for pretending otherwise. What’s your response?

MR TONER: So I’m going to stay in large part where it was yesterday, in that I’m not going to talk about or provide information about these specific photos, and the reason why – and I think Peter Cook also spoke to this, as you noted at the Pentagon – is that I’m not going to talk about where our Special Forces may be located at any given moment. We’ve said before they’ve been deployed to northern Syria to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces who are fighting there, but I can’t get into any specifics. It’s not in my purview, but also I don’t think it’s in the best interests of their operational security.

With respect to Turkey’s comments about these photos, we’ve been very clear from this podium and elsewhere, our belief that the YPG is not connected to the PKK, which we have designated as a foreign terrorist organization. On the contrary, we believe the YPG, as well as other forces in Syria, in northern Syria, are effectively taking the fight to ISIL and we’re going to continue to support them with our advise and assist operations there.

QUESTION: Well, when you say that PYG is not connected to the PKK, they don’t have any ties at all or you just don’t think they fall under the same command?

MR TONER: We have said that we believe they’re – and we hold to this – that we believe they are separate entities. I can’t rule out that there’s some connections. Look, I can’t – let me put it this way, David – I can’t categorically say that there’s not any connections, but we have made very clear that the YPG is a separate entity from the PKK with – is located geographically in a separate area in northern Syria and is, as we have said before, taking the fight to Daesh in northern Syria and is a very effective fighting force, I might add.

QUESTION: But some YP – PYG personnel have been PKK and vice versa. They train in each other’s camps. They have a similar ideology. They’re born from the same movement.

MR TONER: Again, I’m going to stay where I was.

QUESTION: Okay. And do you think this is a crisis in relations with Turkey?

MR TONER: No, look, we’ve been – we understand Turkey’s concerns, and let me make that clear. And we continue to discuss this as well as other concerns that Turkey has regarding Daesh and regarding issues in northern – concerning northern Syria. We’re going to continue to work through those, such as providing stronger border security as well as other aspects that we – where we feel we can strengthen the relationship with Turkey. But Turkey’s been a member of the anti-Daesh coalition, continues to be an active member, and we – we’re grateful for Turkey’s support.

I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: Same subject?

MR TONER: Are we a different subject or still Syria?

QUESTION: On that, on that very issue.


QUESTION: You always say Turkey is an ally, a NATO member, and all that, but in this particular conflict --

MR TONER: Because they are.

QUESTION: -- in this particular conflict in Syria, is Turkey really an ally when they view America’s partner forces on the ground, the YPG, the patches of which U.S. troops are wearing on their uniforms right now, as terrorists? Doesn’t that suggest a huge difference in goals in this conflict?

MR TONER: No, it does not. Because the goal here is to destroy and degrade Daesh and remove them from the battlefield. Frankly, it’s a --

QUESTION: But isn’t YPG the same as --

MR TONER: Frankly, it’s a --

QUESTION: -- Daesh and al-Qaida, just like the Turkish foreign minister said?

MR TONER: It is a goal we share – but it’s a goal we share with all members of the ISSG; it’s a goal we share with all members of the anti-Daesh coalition. Now, are there disagreements among members of the coalition as to how we proceed and with whom we’re cooperating on the ground? I’m not going to say that there aren’t. And obviously, Turkey’s made very clear their feelings about the YPG. We have also been equally clear, while we understand Turkey’s concerns, that we’re going to continue to work with the YPG as a part of the overarching Syrian Democratic Forces. So the YPG is not the sole group that we’re working with on the ground. We’re working with Syrian Arabs, Syrian Turkmen, and other groups that are fighting Daesh.


QUESTION: New subject?


QUESTION: Just a couple of weeks ago, Mark, the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Carter, at the Congress, he accepted that there is a link between – do you think there is a bit of difference between you and the Defense Department?

MR TONER: There is – no, there’s no difference. And I – what I said to David just now is we continue to maintain that the PKK is a designated terrorist organization and we work with Turkey in sharing intelligence and other things in combating the PKK. We take a separate view on the YPG. And we believe, as I said, in the context of northern Syria and in the context of our battle to defeat and degrade Daesh in northern Syria, we view them as an effective partner along with other members of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

QUESTION: Do you think American Special Forces donning YPG uniforms are double standards, two-faced action, as the Foreign Minister Cavusoglu accuses you?

MR TONER: While not specifically addressing the premise of your question, because I said I wasn’t going to speak to those photos, I can confidently say that our Special Forces on the ground are carrying out their mission with bravery and sacrifice and expertise, and that mission is to defeat and degrade Daesh and remove them from northern Syria. And that is, by the way, a goal that we share with Turkey, we share with all the members of the anti-Daesh coalition, we share with Russia, with – share with all the members of the ISSG, we share with everyone.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: Different topic, sir.


QUESTION: Finn with Fox News. Concerning the Inspector General’s report – former Secretary Clinton says that she handed over all her work-related emails, but there are at least three that were cited in the IG report that were not publicly released. How did this happen and who was responsible?

MR TONER: Sure. Well, you are talking about – so let me try to unpack this a little bit.


MR TONER: So in December 2014, Secretary Clinton – former Secretary Clinton – advised the department that she did provide all federal email records in her custody. And she also confirmed that, for a federal district court, that she believed all her emails in her custody had been provided to – sorry, that were potentially federal records – and that’s an important point – were provided to the department. And our position or our goal here has been, as you know, as everyone knows painfully in this room, has been processing through the 55,000 pages of emails that she provided to us and releasing them via the FOIA process.

As to additional emails, we produced in response to other FOIA requests a number of emails involving former Secretary Clinton that were not part of the 55k. So this is not a new – some new revelation that there are other emails out there. And to the extent that there are additional emails, we’re going to continue to – that we find in response to, as I said, processing other FOIA requests, we’re going to continue to release those publicly.

QUESTION: Just also, Ambassador Lukens --


QUESTION: -- in his disposition – deposition, excuse me – said that Clinton and her team were using Blackberrys on the executive floor, which is a secure area. Is that allowed?

MR TONER: No, it’s not. I’m not sure that he actually – my understanding, and I – is that there was some question about whether there was some standalone computer set up. And my understanding is that – not my understanding, is that there was no such computer ever set up. As to using Blackberrys or PDAs on – in the secure secretary suite, there was no waiver permitting their use ever granted during Secretary Clinton’s tenure. Thanks.

QUESTION: Were they actually used during Secretary Clinton’s tenure in that --

MR TONER: I – look, I mean, it’s a secure environment up there and there are safes and other locks – areas where you can – where you need to stash your Blackberry or your PDA before entering that environment. I have no reason to believe that that wasn’t observed during her tenure.

QUESTION: And then I have one other question.

MR TONER: Yes sir.

QUESTION: The report stated that the Office of the Secretary in 2009 decided not to use the SMART system to archive, to electronically archive emails. When asked – when I asked about this, I was told that it wasn’t the Office of the Secretary that made that decision, but rather the Executive Secretariat --

MR TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: -- that made that decision. So I went and I looked at the 2016 phone book --


QUESTION: -- and organizational directory for the State Department, and the very first – well, it’s the second page, after the cover page, says “Office of the Secretary,” and then it has beneath that a whole bunch of different offices, all of which are within the Office of the Secretary. I mean, that’s the heading.

MR TONER: That’s correct, yeah.

QUESTION: So I don’t understand the distinction you’re making when you say the Executive Secretariat is not the Office of the Secretary, because the Executive Secretariat, at least your phone book would suggest, is in the Office of the Secretary, right?

MR TONER: So that is correct, but it is a – it is a different office --

QUESTION: A subset?

MR TONER: A subset. Yeah, exactly.

QUESTION: It’s not a different office because it’s part of the same office.

MR TONER: Understood. Right, right, right. So I think the implication there is that this was not a decision emanating down from the Secretary herself or her senior staff.

QUESTION: Well, how do we know that? I mean, they could have been instructed to do that.

MR TONER: Our understanding is that it was not, that this was a decision made by the Executive Secretariat at the time.

QUESTION: Independent of what the Secretary’s wishes were, or her --

MR TONER: Yes. I mean, and we talked about why --

QUESTION: Are you sure about that; that, in other words, there was nobody from the Secretary’s office who – well, there was nobody outside of the Executive Secretariat who conveyed the Secretary’s wishes about this matter to the Executive Secretariat? I just find it hard to believe --


QUESTION: -- that they would make a decision like that without checking with the Secretary --

MR TONER: So look, I’m --

QUESTION: -- or her aides.

MR TONER: I’m not, but here’s why. I mean, this is what the Executive Secretary does. You’re talking about basically recordkeeping.


MR TONER: And we’ve talked a lot about this, but Secretaries of State are busy people. Their senior staff are also busy and often are not the ones making the decisions regarding recordkeeping, maintaining records of emails, et cetera. That would really fall under the purview of the Executive Secretariat. That is their job to manage that front office, if you will, that senior office, in the State Department.

So it’s not surprising. We talked a little bit yesterday about why SMART wasn’t adopted. It was unwieldy. It wasn’t very user-friendly, et cetera. And look, looking back, we recognize that we weren’t doing the best, to put it mildly, to retain these records. We’ve now got better, newer systems in place such as automatic archiving that will help us address that going forward. But just in direct response to your question, it’s not surprising that this was not some direct decision either from the Secretary or her senior staff.

QUESTION: And do you know for a fact that it was not a direct decision by the Secretary or her senior staff that was then communicated to the Executive Secretariat?

MR TONER: I mean, Arshad, I can’t speak categorically 100 percent that that’s the case. All I can say is that this was a decision enacted by the Executive Secretary.

QUESTION: Okay. And then if the Executive Secretary – if – made a decision not to use the electronic system to archive for whatever reason, why did – and I think there were two during this period or – why did they not print and file stuff as they are – as your rules require them to do? I mean, in other words, they made a conscious choice we’re not going to use this system, so why didn’t they use the existing system?

MR TONER: I agree that it’s a natural, logical jump to make. All I can say is that Secretary Clinton’s emails were not printed and filed during her tenure. However, we did conduct, after her departure, an archiving process that has captured large volumes of material from her tenure as Secretary of State. And we’ve talked about this before. As much as we’ve talked about ad infinitum her email usage, email was not the sole means of doing business at the State Department. So there are memos. There are – there’s a lot of paper that captures and records the policy decisions that she made under her tenure. But as to why the decision was not – was made not to print and file, beyond the fact that it’s an incredibly arduous process, I can’t explain that other than that.

QUESTION: Why – and why – do you know if the Executive Secretariat – well, here’s the next question. According to the IG report, at least two officials raised to I think the Executive Secretariat’s director for IRM concerns about her personal email system. And you’re well aware of the quote that they were told to never talk about this again, or at least that’s what they say. And the person who is alleged to have told them that has referred all queries to his lawyer, who doesn’t – I don’t think has commented on the matter.

So my question is this: As part of your review – I mean, you keep talking about how many people, most people, didn’t have a full understanding of this. And among the people who didn’t have a full understanding of it, you said yesterday, was Under Secretary Kennedy. And I’m told that the director for IRM within the executive secretary’s office reports to the executive secretary, not to the assistant secretary for IRM. So what are you doing, if anything, to make sure that information that should be shared, so that your rules can be followed, is shared with the appropriate people? What is to prevent something like this – maybe not the particular email thing --

MR TONER: Understood.

QUESTION: -- but something else happening again --


QUESTION: -- where the executive secretary, him or herself, may or may not know something --


QUESTION: -- and where the relevant assistant secretaries, let alone the under secretary, don’t understand or don’t know, and therefore your rules are repeatedly violated?

MR TONER: So I think also a fair question. I think it’s part of the eight recommendations that we’re already seeking to implement or have implemented. But I think first and foremost – and we’ve talked about this – it starts with in-processing, and in-processing the Secretary of State and making certain that they understand the obligation both to use official email in their correspondences, business-related correspondence, as well as their obligation to trap that correspondence, to keep those records and maintain those records. And I can also say that in light of this entire episode, there’s certainly a much keener understanding that, precisely as you said, we need to communicate within the different entities. We need to have a clearer understanding of not just the Secretary but how senior staff are using their email – private email versus official email. And again, there’s been an emphasis under Secretary Kerry to ensure that the entire department understands the need to keep records of their email correspondence.


QUESTION: Two more from me on this, and --

MR TONER: Sure. And I apologize – I’m looking at the clock. I apologize.

QUESTION: I’ll try to be super quick.

MR TONER: Thanks.

QUESTION: One, I believe you said that as of last March, March of 2015 --

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- all of Secretary Kerry’s state.gov emails are being captured, correct? Are being automatically captured?

MR TONER: Yeah, I’m just looking for the exact date I gave you. I know he’s – they’re automatically archiving his – I don’t have the date in front of me. I apologize.

QUESTION: It’s okay.


QUESTION: So what is the system that’s automatically archiving them?

MR TONER: I will take that question. Yeah, I’ll take that question. I don’t have the exact name of the system that we’re using.



QUESTION: I have a couple more follow-ups --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- but I’ll email them if you could take those because I --

MR TONER: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks, Arshad.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

MR TONER: Thank you. One last question in the back. Go ahead, sir. I apologize, guys. I don’t mean to cut you off.

QUESTION: Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News. Sir, it is reported that NSG, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, meeting soon in early June to consider membership of India, that U.S. supports. So is the forthcoming meeting being organized by the U.S. or was it already on NSG calendar?

MR TONER: You’re talking about the Modi visit or the meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group?


MR TONER: Look, deliberations about the prospects of new members joining the Nuclear Supplier Groups are an internal matter among the current members. I don’t have much to say beyond that other than that I think they meet regularly. This I not a specific meeting, I believe – not set up to particularly talk about this issue.

QUESTION: So does the – State Department confident that it has already generated a consensus in NSG in favor of India?

MR TONER: Well, look, all I can say is that during his visit to India in 2015, President Obama did affirm the U.S. view that India meets missile technology control regime requirements and is ready for membership. But it’s a consensus body, so we’ll wait and see how the vote goes.

QUESTION: So in the Foreign Relations Committee a couple of days ago, one of the senator says that guaranteeing exemptions to India for the NSG membership would affect Pakistan’s nuclear choices and it can produce further battlefield nuclear weapons. So the question is that, sir: Except giving pace to the nuclear arms race in the region, what really the United States is gaining in getting India into NSG?

MR TONER: Into the Nuclear Suppliers Group?


MR TONER: Well, again, it’s – this is not about an arms race and it’s not about nuclear weapons. This is about the peaceful civil use of nuclear energy, and so we would certainly hope that Pakistan understands that.

QUESTION: Sir, Pakistan also desires to become the member of NSG.

MR TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: The United States support Pakistan for that?

MR TONER: They have made public their interest, and certainly any country can submit its application for membership. And we’ll consider based on a consensus decision.

QUESTION: Sir, one last question: Afghanistan. Sir, Pakistan is trying to locate Mullah Fazlullah, the TTP chief – Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan chief – who is said to be in Afghanistan somewhere. Sir, what efforts are being done to locate him in the Afghanistan?

MR TONER: To locate the --

QUESTION: Mullah Fazlullah.

MR TONER: Yeah. Look, we continue to cooperate closely with Afghans – Afghanistan, certainly – but also urge Pakistan to go after terrorists, especially Taliban leadership, and that cooperation continues.

QUESTION: One question on Ukraine.

MR TONER: Yeah, sir.

QUESTION: Today leaders of G7, including the U.S. President, adopted a declaration --

MR TONER: Yes sir.

QUESTION: -- in Japan regarding the issue of Ukraine-Russia. They stressed that G7 stands ready to take further restrictive measures in order to increase cost of Russia – on Russia. Could you clarify this point and what circumstances would lead to that step?

MR TONER: Well, I think – look, I’m just going to say that we believe sanctions need to stay in place regarding Russia and regarding its actions in Crimea as well as in eastern Ukraine. Until it meets its Minsk commitments and until it returns – which is a specific set of sanctions – as well as returns Crimea – for another set of sanctions – to its rightful owners, which is Ukraine. The path to alleviating sanctions is very clear: Russia needs to comply with its Minsk commitments. But as to potential next steps, I just can’t forecast what that might be.


QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:09 p.m.)