Daily Press Briefing - June 3, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:03 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey, everybody. Hey, Arshad. Welcome, everyone, to the State Department. Happy Friday, as David noticed – noted, excuse me, noted. (Audio feedback.) A little feedback, a little Jimi Hendrix feedback there.
QUESTION: A glitch. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: Too soon.
QUESTION: It’s too soon? Sorry. Too raw? (Laughter.)
MR TONER: All right, guys, let’s get started. A couple of things at the top and then I’ll move to your questions.
First of all, beginning with Fallujah. I wanted to update you on the ongoing effort to retake Fallujah. Contrary to some media reports, efforts have not stalled. In fact, as the fight to liberate Fallujah from Daesh proceeds, we would reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the Iraqi Government and Iraqi forces in their struggle as well as to the civilians of Fallujah who have suffered under the scourge of Daesh now for nearly two years. We continue to support the Iraqi Security Forces with precision air strikes, with tactical intelligence, with military advice, as well as much-needed equipment. And we note that the Government of Iraq has committed to making every effort to avoid civilian casualties in its efforts to liberate the city.
I also wanted to note – moving to Syria and Aleppo – the United States strongly condemns today’s reported airstrike on the Syrian American Medical Society building in Aleppo. This is a group that bravely provides medical services to those in dire need and it’s unconscionable that its offices would be struck. We’re still trying to gather the facts surrounding the circumstances of today’s attack, but we would like to reiterate that all parties must cease any attacks on – against, rather, civilian and humanitarian targets, including medical facilities and first responders.
And then lastly, while we’re on the subject of Syria and humanitarian assistance, I’d like to express the United States’s deep appreciation for the efforts of the UN team on the ground in Syria. Day after day, this group of individuals pushes for access to besieged areas to get badly needed food and basic necessities to civilians who are in dire need. And in doing so, they often risk their own lives as they are potentially caught in the crossfire. So in all of our talk about humanitarian access and the need for humanitarian assistance to reach some of these besieged areas, we thought it would be worthwhile to focus on those who are out there providing this humanitarian assistance, risking their own lives to do so. We want them to know that their work is deeply appreciated and we commend them for their efforts.
And with that, Matt, I will hand it over to you.
QUESTION: Right. I want to get back to Syria, but --
MR TONER: Okay.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- the loose ends from the editing of the briefing video.
MR TONER: Great.
QUESTION: You will have seen today that Congressman Chaffetz and Congressman Royce have each written – Congressman Royce to the Inspector General, asking him to open an investigation into this; and Congressman Chaffetz directly to the Secretary, asking for the department to turn over all of the documents related to the investigation into what happened. Well, first, have you gotten those letters? Have you responded? What will your response be? And you had been resisting – well, let’s start with that.
MR TONER: Okay. So we’ve – we have seen the letters. Obviously, we’ve received – on the receiving end of the letter from Senator Chaffetz.
QUESTION: From who?
MR TONER: Senator – what did I --
MR TONER: Representative Chaffetz; I apologize.
QUESTION: I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being a senator.
MR TONER: Representative Chaffetz; sorry.
QUESTION: You gave him a promotion.
MR TONER: I apologize. Representative Chaffetz. We are in the process of studying the letter, and of course, we will make every effort to be responsive to his questions.
QUESTION: Does that mean you responded?
QUESTION: It’s a pretty short letter.
QUESTION: When you say “responsive to his requests,” I mean, when you say you’re going to make every effort to be responsive to his request, does that mean you’re actually going to produce all the documents and the communications by June 8th, like he requested?
MR TONER: I would just say we’re looking at the letter; we’re in the process of seeing how we can be responsive and under what time constraints.
QUESTION: Well, do you know, is there an issue that might prevent you from being responsive and prevent – that could prevent you from turning over the fruits of the legal advisor’s investigation?
MR TONER: No, I mean, look, I mean, we are always responsive to Congress and always strive to be --
QUESTION: Well, you can be responsive by saying no.
MR TONER: -- and always strive to be responsive to Congress, certainly. I just don’t – I can’t stand up in front of you today and say we’ll meet their demands by X date. We’re looking at the letter and we’ll get back in touch with them.
QUESTION: All right. Yeah, earlier both you and Kirby have been somewhat resistant or the building, through you, has been resistant to the idea of an IG probe because you say that it – this is a very specific incident and the IG generally focuses on broader thematic issues. Has that position changed or do you think that Chairman Royce has a point when he says that --
MR TONER: Certainly, we don’t – as we’ve made pains to – or take pains to make this point frequently, the OIG operates as a separate entity, and so it will decide for itself whether it wants to look into this incident. I think our – my point yesterday was that – the point about looking at doing audits, investigations, what have you – but also that there was no, as we talked about at length yesterday, there was no rules broken here. We did conduct an internal investigation, but the letter’s been sent to the IG and it’s up to the IG to make that call.
QUESTION: Right. Yeah, but – so but you’re not going to get --
MR TONER: I’m certainly not going to – I’m not going to pronounce one way or another or make that decision for them. It’s not my --
QUESTION: Well, but you had said before – both you and Kirby had said before that you didn’t think it was necessary. Is that still the position of the building?
MR TONER: We didn’t. We didn’t, but we’re certainly not going to --
QUESTION: Sorry, you didn’t what?
MR TONER: We conducted an internal review within the State Department.
QUESTION: No, I understand that.
MR TONER: We did not think it fell into the purview of the IG.
QUESTION: And do you – right. And do you still – is that still your position?
MR TONER: It’s still our viewpoint, but it’s up to the IG to decide whether they look at --
QUESTION: I understand that. But you still don’t think it’s necessary?
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: So given that you still don’t think it’s necessary, are you now planning to continue your own investigation or your own review of this? Because the other day you said no, you still don’t know who did it. Has that changed?
MR TONER: We don’t. Look, I mean, we’ve looked into it, as we talked about yesterday. We still don’t know who made the request.
MR TONER: But we also said if there is more information that comes to light, we’re going to look at it and we’re going to consider it. But --
QUESTION: But there’s a difference between, like, standing and hoping that information drops out of the sky into your hands and actively going out and looking for it. And I just want to know – there’s been a lot of criticism from up on the Hill about this and them called – saying what has been done so far is fine but it’s incomplete and that there needs to be --
MR TONER: We feel --
QUESTION: There needs to be more information about this.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Why it was done, who did it, and some kind of accountability even if no rules were broken.
MR TONER: Well, and that’s precisely the point is whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, there were no rules or regulations broken.
QUESTION: I mean that’s a separate – completely separate category of thing here.
MR TONER: We believe that we have investigated the incident to the point where – to which we can. And what we have sought to address is the fact that there was an absence of a clear policy --
MR TONER: -- about this and we have addressed that, as you saw.
QUESTION: Last one.
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: So the criticism that you have been on the receiving end of over the course of the last couple of days has not at all swayed or changed your viewpoint as to reopening or continuing to press ahead to try and get the answers that people – the lawmakers and others – are demanding; is that correct?
MR TONER: It’s correct to say that we believe we have conducted an inquiry into this incident. We have, to the extent that we can, that – given that no rules or regulations or policy was broken, that we have sought to correct that going forward but that we believe we have exhausted our efforts to look into the incident and responsibility.
QUESTION: Right, but – and I know I said the last one. Right, okay.
MR TONER: That’s okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: Then this definitely will --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: It’s not a – I don’t think – the point is not that the – whether a specific rule or regulation was broken, but it’s kind of a – it’s a public trust issue that was broken, credibility that was broken issue here. It didn’t have to be about this. It could have been about anything. It could have been about aid to Borneo. It’s not the – I know that a lot of people are saying that it’s more important, perhaps, because it was about the Iran negotiations, but in fact any deletion or editing of any part of a briefing on any subject should be wrong and not acceptable. Isn’t that correct?
MR TONER: So a couple of points on that – a couple of points on that. First of all – and we’ve said this from day one, when this allegations or this incident first came to light – one product, a video, was edited. We have acknowledged that and we have made steps to correct the policy going forward so that that never happens again. But there was always a transcript available of that briefing and there was always a video available of the full briefing on DVIDS. So I understand – and I understand and I appreciate the tough questions that you all are asking us in this room, and we are doing our best to answer, but there’s a lot of overblown rhetoric beyond this room about what happened and what transpired. We believe we have conducted an inquiry into what happened. We don’t have the answers, ultimately, why this was done or why this was requested. And so like many of you, we’re asking ourselves the same questions, but we don’t have any further leads to investigate. So we’re at a – as I said yesterday – a bit of a dead end. But we’re going to continue to, as we get information, more information, we’ll pursue that. But what’s important here is that we take steps so it doesn’t happen in the future.
Matt – or Arshad, sorry.
QUESTION: Did you get an answer to my question regarding whether or not the State Department has internal telephone records that would allow you to figure out who did this, or whom – who – what phone made the phone call?
MR TONER: Right. So we did actually check with IRM, and the system is such that internal phone call records are only available for a 24-hour period. So those records – internal calls – would no longer be available.
QUESTION: When you say they’re only available, does – do they go somewhere else where they’re inaccessible after 24 hours?
MR TONER: No, I believe they’re just simply gone.
QUESTION: Gone. Okay. Did the --
MR TONER: That’s my understanding. Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. Did the Office of the Legal Adviser seek to find out if there were telephone records?
MR TONER: They did not.
QUESTION: Okay. Why not?
MR TONER: Well, again, because, Arshad, it returns to the point I was trying to make with Matt, which is, as regrettable as this incident was – and we’ve acknowledged that – they – there wasn’t a legal premise on which to base a further investigation into the incident. We did interview the person, who, by the way, came forward and offered their recollection of what happened. But beyond that we didn’t feel like we – or they – the legal office didn’t feel like they needed to pursue this further – did not have the grounds to pursue this further.
QUESTION: So – well, but either you want to find out or you don’t. And if you want to find out, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t ask a question that even somebody like me, who’s not a lawyer and doesn’t – would think of, which is, gee, maybe there’s a record here since this involves a phone call. And I don’t understand why they wouldn’t – I understand that you don’t have a broken rule or a broken law. What I don’t understand – I mean, this all goes to credibility, and if the idea is to do a credible review, even if it’s not an investigation, why wouldn’t you turn over every stone?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think we also have to be mindful of the privacy of individuals involved and we also have to be mindful of the authority by which we can carry out any kind of, again, examination of what happened. And there was no legal basis on which to continue to look into this incident.
Now, like I said, if we get more information, new information, and we would certainly pursue that.
QUESTION: So I’m --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Another thing. I’m told that – you’ll recall that on Wednesday, Kirby said that all that the person could recollect was that someone had asked that this be done. I don’t – I can look up his exact quote.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: But basically, all the person could remember was that they were called and asked to do this, and that they believed it came from elsewhere in PA. I’m told that the person also, however, said that they had no – that they didn’t think it was former spokesperson Jen Psaki. Is that correct?
MR TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: Why weren’t we told that on Wednesday? I mean, you said all they can remember is X, but now it turns out it – they remembered more than just X. And I don’t understand why you would say they only remember X and then it turns out they remember more than that, and then we – we learn about it later.
MR TONER: It’s a legitimate point, Arshad, and one we have now obviously corrected by putting that out there. Look, I think we were concerned by some of the coverage that Jen Psaki was being sullied by allegations that she somehow – this came from her. And so we recognized that we needed to very clearly refute that point, and so we did.
QUESTION: Did the person recollect anything else about the communication that they received that we have not been told? Did they say, for example – and I – that they recollected that anybody else – that it wasn’t anybody else specifically? Did they remember that it wasn’t the deputy spokesperson at the time or that it wasn’t the assistant secretary at the time?
MR TONER: To my knowledge, no, that there was no other – that --
QUESTION: Pertinent information?
MR TONER: -- pertinent information conveyed, but we have since seen that – and you have also seen this – that the deputy spokesperson at the time, Marie Harf, and others – the assistant secretary at the time – have all come out and said that they had no parts in this.
QUESTION: Yeah. No, I’m asking because I want to know if there was anything --
MR TONER: Yeah, I understand --
QUESTION: -- as they remember it.
MR TONER: I understand why you’re asking.
MR TONER: I will triple-check that, but that is my understanding, is that – that’s --
QUESTION: Well, is there anyone else you can rule out?
MR TONER: You mean – I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, the only person that you guys feel comfortable – seem to be comfortable ruling out as the source of this is Jen. Is that correct, or are you able to extend that to other people? And if so, how many other people have been ruled out?
MR TONER: Well, again, part of – this is the reason why we don’t want to go down this rabbit hole.
QUESTION: Well, but you went down this slippery slope --
MR TONER: I understand that. I understand that.
QUESTION: -- by saying this is who didn’t do it.
MR TONER: I understand that, but that was part of the reason why we didn’t get into this information in the first place. I mean, to the extent that what this individual shared in terms of who she spoke with and who she was able to rule out or to confirm that was not on the other end of the line or was not part of this, it’s only been Jen. But other people have, as you know, stepped forward and said --
QUESTION: Right. And you have no reason to doubt any of those?
MR TONER: And we have no reason to doubt any of them.
QUESTION: One more. I had asked whether, as a general matter, there is any State Department rule against lying to someone conducting an internal review. Is there?
MR TONER: Lying against anyone conducting an internal review?
QUESTION: Lying to anyone – if somebody is conducting an internal review, is there a rule against lying to them?
MR TONER: I would presume so, yes. I don’t have – I apologize.
QUESTION: Can – no, it’s okay.
MR TONER: I will check on that.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. I mean, it’s in the same category of if you don’t have a rule --
MR TONER: No, I understood.
QUESTION: -- then – yeah, okay. So I would like to know if there is. If there isn’t, maybe you would want to institute such a rule, but – yeah.
MR TONER: No, I – and just to take that one step further, I mean, this is an organization in which the majority of people have security clearances, and all of those require significant background checks, but also require people to be interviewed on occasional basises and tell – be truthful about – in those interviews, so I would presume it to be the case.
QUESTION: I want to move on, but I think Olivia probably has some questions on that.
QUESTION: Hi. How are you? I have a quick question: Was there no – was there a look into the email back-and-forth of the editor to see whether they said – whether it was confirmed that they had edited a piece? Was there – I know we talked about phone calls, but was there any look into the emails? Because I know that that’s widely --
MR TONER: The email records – the – right, whether there was an email exchange that --
QUESTION: With one’s superior --
MR TONER: So my understanding is – and if this is wrong, I will correct myself – but my understanding is that this was all done over the phone.
MR TONER: Yeah. So there’s no email record.
QUESTION: Was it just one phone call, or could it have been more than one?
MR TONER: I believe it was just one phone call, is my understanding.
QUESTION: Can I move on to Iraq?
MR TONER: Yep, sure.
QUESTION: Can I do one more, a quick one?
MR TONER: Yeah, let’s finish up.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary reacted or does he plan to react to any of this in the next days?
MR TONER: Well, he’s certainly aware of it, and he’s very concerned. And his concern is based on the fact that he wants, as we’ve done once the policy changed so that this kind of incident can’t occur in the future – the Secretary takes very seriously a commitment to transparency and integrity of the organization, and in that regard, yes, he’s very much aware of this incident and of the steps we’re taking to correct it.
QUESTION: So on that, just before we lose the topic, I wanted to thank you for pushing out the email that Kirby sent to the bureau yesterday --
MR TONER: Yep, thank you.
QUESTION: -- in response to the request to do so.
MR TONER: Yeah, please. Yeah. Thanks.
QUESTION: One other thing about that.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: And I read it late yesterday when it came out, and I don’t remember – did you – it’s clear that that email made reference to the integrity of transcripts. I just want to make sure for the record that there are indeed rules in place regarding the integrity of transcripts and not tampering with them.
MR TONER: Yes. Yes, there are.
QUESTION: And there already were before Wednesday?
MR TONER: Yes, there were. Yes.
QUESTION: I have a couple questions on the eighth session of S&ED in Beijing --
MR TONER: Let’s finish – I know Said had a question. I promise I will get to you, but he was just --
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Do you have another one on the --
QUESTION: Yes. Pat Ward, Fox News.
MR TONER: Yeah, that’s okay.
QUESTION: So yesterday we saw Admiral Kirby publicly thank James Rosen for his conduct during this case, saying that he had, quote, “great respect” for him. Hours later, we saw White House Communications Director Jen Psaki accuse her of – accused Rosen of vilifying her and attacking her character throughout. What do you make of that discrepancy?
MR TONER: Well, I would let Jen Psaki speak to her response to James Rosen. Excuse me. I think she was simply defending her integrity, and that’s something that she takes very seriously and felt that she was – that she needed to respond to some of the allegations that were out there. And again, it’s one of the reasons why I came out yesterday and said that we have no reason to believe that Jen Psaki did anything wrong or was in any way aware of this incident or behind it at all or in any way connected to it.
I think John Kirby was simply, when he noted the fact that James Rosen was the one who called this to our attention and deserves credit for that.
Can we go to Fallujah?
QUESTION: Okay. Today, Osama Nujaifi, the former speaker of the Iraqi parliament, said that there are summary executionings happening, that there are all kinds of violations of human rights of the communities around that presumably are conducted by the Shia militias and others who are trying to liberate Fallujah from ISIS. Do you have any comment on that? I mean, he’s making some really creative accusations.
MR TONER: Sure, a couple of points to make. Sure. Prime Minister Abadi has ordered Iraqi Security Forces to open safe passageways for civilians to depart from Fallujah and has ordered them to make every effort to protect civilians. We also would welcome Ayatollah --
MR TONER: -- Sistani’s message that Iraqi Security Forces should protect civilian property as well as civilians themselves. We have seen these reports – the reports that you raise. We’re very concerned by them. We’re raising them with the Iraqi Government. But the Iraqi Government has made every commitment – or rather, committed to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties and has issued clear instructions to Iraqi Security Forces, and we obviously support them in this position.
QUESTION: Now, there were reports by, I think U.S. News & World Report, saying or illustrating how Iran’s thumbprints or fingerprints are all over this operation, and they’re saying that the tactics used by the Mobilization Forces, Hashd al-Shaabi, is basically creating sympathies among the Sunni population and, in fact, sympathies for ISIS, in this regard.
Are you concerned that if this continues in the fashion it is conducted now that this may actually have sort of counterproductive results?
MR TONER: Well, of course, we’re concerned about sectarian tensions and any actions that could heighten those tensions. As Iraqi Security Forces control more and more territory, it’s essential that they do so in a manner that will help maintain the support of the local population. That’s absolutely integral to the success of their efforts.
In Fallujah, we’ve seen Prime Minister Abadi manage the offensive very carefully, very deliberately, especially, as I said, with respect to opening these kind of safe passageways. Thus far, from what we’ve seen, we believe Iraqi Security Forces have been following these orders and acting with professionalism with regard to the civilians. But as we do hear reports about allegations of abuse or targeting of civilians, we certainly look into those.
QUESTION: Very similar.
MR TONER: Yes.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- of the SDF firing on unarmed protesters in the village of Sluk north of Raqqa.
MR TONER: North of Raqqa.
QUESTION: Yeah. Apparently, this is an Arab village that the YPG liberated from ISIS, but they have not allowed the original inhabitants to return. And when they protested today, they were fired upon – or yesterday, possibly.
MR TONER: Yeah, I don’t have – I’m sorry, I don’t have any details on that incident. We’ll certainly look into it. But as we’ve said many times, we take those kinds of – reports of those kinds of incidents very seriously. We’ve been very clear about – in our discussions with the YPG that as they liberate territory, they have to return it to civilian control and they have to allow those populations that were displaced to return and to not feel pressured or --
QUESTION: The village in question, Sluk, apparently was liberated 11 months ago --
MR TONER: Is that right?
QUESTION: -- and the civilians have not been allowed to return.
MR TONER: Well, we’ll certainly look into it and see if we have more to say about it.
QUESTION: So, Mark --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: -- in keeping with the same --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- area and theme, Foreign Minister Lavrov said today that the United States – and I don’t know if he specifically said it was Secretary Kerry or not – but said the United States has asked Russia not to, in its air operations in Syria, attack al-Nusrah because of the possibility that such strikes could hit either civilians or members of who you call the moderate opposition. Is that correct?
MR TONER: So what – look, yeah, so I’m not --
MR TONER: -- going to get into the details of the conversation beyond saying that we conveyed, Secretary conveyed to Russia and the Assad regime the need to carefully distinguish between these terrorist groups operating on the ground and those parties to the COH. And this is something that we’ve – this is a common refrain, a common theme that we’ve been conveying to the Russians over the past weeks.
We obviously all agree that ISIL and the Nusrah front pose a real threat to the security on the ground in Syria, but what also happens is when you’ve got airstrikes that are not just hitting these groups – al-Nusrah – but also hitting opposition groups and also hitting civilian targets, you’re creating only the dynamic that you have more – you’re driving more support into the arms of these terrorist groups. And that’s a dynamic we’ve seen play out in Syria for years now because of the regime’s actions.
QUESTION: So, in fact, yes, you have told the Russians that they should not attack or conduct airstrikes against people – against a group that is specifically --
MR TONER: We have only --
QUESTION: -- excluded from the cessation of hostilities?
MR TONER: What we have – what we have stressed is that they need to carefully distinguish between al-Nusrah and the parties of the COH in their attacks.
QUESTION: So you’re okay if they continue to attack al-Nusrah and hit nothing but al-Nusrah? As long as these attacks don’t hit civilians or guys that you like --
MR TONER: But --
QUESTION: -- the rebel groups --
MR TONER: Precisely, and that’s a big if. I mean --
QUESTION: -- that you like, then it’s okay?
MR TONER: -- and we haven’t seen that to date.
QUESTION: You have not? You haven’t seen the Russians attack any – just al-Nusrah?
MR TONER: Well, we haven’t seen the – look, what we’ve seen – and the reason this was raised, again, is that we continue to see attacks that also hit groups affiliated with the cessation of hostilities.
QUESTION: Right. I guess --
MR TONER: So to answer your question, of course we support strikes focused solely on either Daesh or al-Nusrah, but that a greater effort, a more complete effort needs to be made in order to distinguish between al-Nusrah and the parties to the COH.
QUESTION: Okay. So it is not, from your perspective, incumbent on the moderate opposition rebels and civilians to get away – to get away from --
MR TONER: There is an element of that. Absolutely, there’s an element of that, and we’ve talked about that as well, yeah, that there --
QUESTION: Or is it impossible, do you think? I mean, is it --
MR TONER: Not --
QUESTION: Like, is it – whose fault do you think it is that they are so close together or, in fact, intermingled? Is it Nusrah, which is glomming themselves on to civilians? Or is it civilians who potentially are glomming themselves onto them because – for potential protection?
MR TONER: I don’t have a granular answer to that question except to say that the reality is that there is intermingling. And we’ve talked about this and that it – this for a while, and we’ve also talked about the fact that it’s incumbent on the U.S. and other governments who have influence on the opposition to convey to them that they do need to disentangle, disconnect themselves from the --
QUESTION: Right. That’s been going on for weeks if not months, and it hasn’t seemed to work yet, so --
MR TONER: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s an ongoing challenge.
QUESTION: Right. And then the last one is that did – it’s now June 3rd. The one solid accomplishment that came out of the last ISSG meeting in Vienna was that airdrops of food aid would begin on June 1st. And as far as I know, there haven’t been any, and it’s now three days in. The need is still there.
MR TONER: Yeah. And --
QUESTION: It’s still a disaster. And so I just – WFP says it needs the permission of the Syrian Government to do this. Why? Why can’t the ISSG live up to its pledge?
MR TONER: And?
QUESTION: Start the airdrops three days ago or two days ago.
MR TONER: So first of all, the UN Security Council is actually taking this issue up today. We still believe that the best way to get this assistance to those in need is via ground transport.
MR TONER: And we’re still pursuing those efforts. But we’re also – as I said, we’re also looking into – with the World Food Program on plans to carry out air operations. So let’s let the meetings today at the UN Security Council take place and see where we are.
QUESTION: Oh, okay. But, I mean, that was the whole point of the meeting in Vienna that this came out. This should have been a done deal, shouldn’t it have been? I mean, does anything that the ISSG resolve to do actually get done as it relates to humanitarian aid? I mean, you can say that the best way to get the aid in is by truck all you want to, but unless the Syrian Government allows it, that’s not going to happen, and they haven’t been allowing it.
MR TONER: Which is – which is why --
QUESTION: So – which is precisely why the ISSG said it would do airdrops starting on June 1st if the – and that – and now they aren’t happening. They aren’t happening.
MR TONER: So we’re now a couple days into June, but we are looking at – the World Food Program is looking at how to carry out those airdrops.
QUESTION: Mark, is it --
QUESTION: Did you hear what Bouthaina Shaaban said on – I’m sorry, what she said on the aid?
MR TONER: Sure, go ahead. (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: Did you get to review what she said? She said that --
MR TONER: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: -- in fact, Daraya is not suffering from any kind of food shortage.
MR TONER: Who said this? I apologize.
QUESTION: The advisor to Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban. I wonder if you reviewed what she said. She said that they are – first of all, they are in talks with the UN to allow these shipments to go in, and she said that Daraya was not suffering from any food shortage. It is the breadbasket of Damascus. I mean, many of the other things. Were you able to review what she said, and do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: Only to dismiss it out of hand and to --
MR TONER: I mean, look, I’ll control myself from expressing the contempt I have towards that particular individual and for that person to somehow claim that – or civilians who have not received any food assistance since 2012 are somehow in the land of milk and honey is just beyond the pale.
QUESTION: Well, she didn’t say the land of milk and honey, but she did say that area is quite lush and it has historically produced food and so on and it does and all these things.
MR TONER: We – look, we base our assessments off of the UN but also on our very clear knowledge of the extent of the suffering of the civilians in some of these besieged areas that I think Staffan de Mistura has called the besiegement of these places, something out of the Middle Ages. It’s beyond the pale.
QUESTION: Mark, on --
QUESTION: Mark, back on the airdrops for – sorry.
QUESTION: Well, can we just stay with the --
MR TONER: Yeah, yeah, sure.
QUESTION: I just want to know, because I think this is more of a Treasury question than it is for you --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- but what is the Administration’s response to this woman appearing at this conference whether it was – even though it wasn’t in person – she didn’t get a visa. Is there – was there any sanction violated in her appearance or are you looking – still looking into it? What’s Treasury had to say about this?
MR TONER: Yeah. I’m – and I apologize, Matt. I know that Treasury was looking into whether – so she did speak at this conference, as you note, and --
QUESTION: But they didn’t get back to us what we asked, so if you could --
MR TONER: Okay. I’ll follow up on it. I mean, she – the question, I think, is whether the organizers violated --
MR TONER: -- any existing laws or regulations.
MR TONER: So I will look into that. I’ll --
QUESTION: So you don’t know?
MR TONER: I will – I will take the question.
QUESTION: Also Skype, so maybe Microsoft. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: Fair enough.
QUESTION: Mark, a couple things first. Back to the airdrops. Is it the U.S. position that the World Food Program would need permission from the Syrian Government to do the helicopter or airdrops into the besieged area? And then a follow-up: If the Syrian regime continues to say no, does that mean the airdrop plan is in essence dead in the water?
MR TONER: The first part of your question is – I’m sorry, I apologize. The first part of your question was whether we support?
QUESTION: No. Does the U.S. believe that the World Food Program --
QUESTION: If it needs – needs the Syrian Government’s permission.
QUESTION: -- needs permission from the Syrian Government to land?
MR TONER: Well, yes in the sense that they need to be able to – I mean, the level of the airdrops – my understanding is that they need to have safety concerns addressed that their airplanes or helicopters are going to be safe or granted safe passage. I think that’s the concern and I think that’s a legitimate concern. As to whether that’s dead in the water, we’re going to continue to push hard on this through the ISSG working with, obviously, Russia to exert influence on the regime, that if we don’t get access via land routes, that we do get access via air.
QUESTION: So --
QUESTION: And can I ask you --
QUESTION: Sorry, I’m on airdrops.
QUESTION: Sorry, okay.
QUESTION: If that’s where you are, then please. On – just on the airdrops, I mean, I’m looking at the language from the ISSG statement, and it says: “Starting June 1, if the UN is denied humanitarian access to any of the designated besieged areas, the ISSG calls on the World Food Program to immediately carry out a program for air bridges and airdrops for all areas in need.” When we began talking about this at the beginning of the week, I asked the question: Well, why – why wasn’t this ready June 1st? Right? If you’re in a besieged area and you’ve been starving since 2012, as you say, and you have all the major countries of the – all the major powers, including Russia, including Iran, saying this, right, then one, why do you have to – why is it only June 1st that, to use Kirby’s words, the World Food Program or whoever is telling you this began looking at it, quote, “in earnest”? So that’s question one.
Question two, it then goes on to say the ISSG pledges to support such a program and also calls on all parties to the cessation of hostilities to provide a secure environment for that program. But if carrying out that program is entirely contingent on the consent of the Syrian Government, what makes you think they’re going to give their consent to feed people from the air when they have denied it, in your telling, on the ground?
And then my third question is: Well, jeepers, if you knew it was going to require Syrian Government consent, why did you kind of put this out there when it was perfectly possible that the Syrian Government would not provide consent?
Anyway, let’s start from the first question, okay?
QUESTION: I think we should start with “jeepers.” (Laughter.)
MR TONER: So --
QUESTION: I asked the question a few days ago and Kirby said he didn’t like my tone. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: So beginning with the first question, we have been in conversations with the World Food Program --
QUESTION: Well, why wasn’t the plan ready for June 1? That’s my first question, yeah.
MR TONER: Yeah, it’s – again, I don’t have a clear and ready answer for you on that other than to say that we have been given briefings by the World Food Program on a series of approaches that could be taken, and we’ve certainly discussed those with our Russian counterparts. But we’re not there yet. We’re obviously not at the execution phase. That’s part of the goal of today’s discussions at the UN Security Council. Why --
QUESTION: So --
MR TONER: And then in answer to your last question: Why does this all hinge on --
QUESTION: Let’s go to the second question --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- because I think it kind of goes in order.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The second question is, if this – and I understand that there are safety concerns. But if this requires the consent of the Syrian Government, what made you think the Syrian Government would permit airdrops of food when they have refused to permit ground convoys of food and other humanitarian goods?
MR TONER: Basic human decency.
QUESTION: But you guys have – you --
QUESTION: That has not been – in your telling, that has not been in great supply from the Syrian Government for the last five years. And so I don’t know why you would think that you would suddenly see an outpouring of basic human decency when they’ve been denying the ground deliveries.
MR TONER: Well, you’re right. It – you’re right, we have not. And I was being probably inappropriately facetious, but I wanted to shed – to shine a light on the fact that their behavior in preventing assistance to reach – from reaching these besieged areas is beyond morally reprehensible. But I think as with so much of our strategy with Syria, via the ISSG, much of it depends on the ability of members like Russia to enable, enforce, empower – however you want to put it – the Syrian regime to uphold the cessation of hostilities, which is what I was thinking of. We need – that they’ve been inconsistently supportive of.
And then secondly, with access to humanitarian assistance, we’re going to keep up the pressure. Just because they’re showing a continued reluctance to support this access, it doesn’t mean we can simply step away from it. And also, the ISSG statement that you quoted from was predicated on the Syrian regime’s stated commitment that it would allow access to these besieged areas. They have since, obviously, not lived up to their commitments, but we still need to hold their feet to the fire.
QUESTION: So – and forgive me, but --
MR TONER: Yeah, it’s okay.
QUESTION: -- I think my third question was why did you hold out this – I mean, let’s say that you are somebody who’s starving in one of the besieged areas and you think, “Oh, well great, maybe there’s food going to show up on June 1st.” Why even hold this out as a possibility if it hinged completely on the consent of the Syrian Government?
MR TONER: Well, primarily because we had been given, again, assurances that the regime was going to honor its commitment to allow that access.
QUESTION: And then I have one last one --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: -- which is – although it’s not clear to me that it’s a good answer in the sense that the airdrops were contingent on their failing to provide the access that they had committed to provide, right? So, I mean, you – it’s – the idea of the airdrops was raised on the assumption of failure on their part to meet their commitment. So why you would think they would need – let you do something else –
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: Here’s the last question, which is why – the statement says that the ISSG pledges to support such a program and also calls on all parties to the cessation of hostilities to provide a secure environment for that program. Now that excludes Syria. Syria’s not – actually, no, it calls on all parties to the cessation of hostilities, so --
MR TONER: Which would include the regime.
QUESTION: Right. But there isn’t really much of a cessation of hostilities at the moment. But the question is, and maybe you would argue that you’re not part of the cessation of hostilities, right? That applies only to the combatants.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: But my question is: What is the U.S. Government going to do? Because the ISSG, of which it is a part, is calling for everybody in the cessation of hostilities that doesn’t really exist to provide a secure environment. Well, the U.S. Government actually has the capability to provide a secure environment for airdrops, right? I mean, you’ve imposed no-fly zones; in other places you have the capability to take out the kind of ground radars and stuff that – I mean, you actually have the capability to provide that secure environment that you’re calling for. Are you giving any thought to U.S. Government action to actually provide a secure environment for such airdrops?
MR TONER: I’ll just say that our focus remains on exerting the pressure on the actors on the ground via the other members of the ISSG to provide that secure environment.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark.
MR TONER: Yeah, Fallujah.
QUESTION: Can we just finish Fallujah?
MR TONER: I’ll get to you, I promise.
QUESTION: Similar to Said’s question but involving the PMF, the Popular Mobilization Force.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: If – we’ve got some eyewitness accounts from a camp south of Fallujah, people who have escaped the fighting there, saying that the PMF has separated the men from the women and children, beating, handcuffing for security screening purposes the men. And then the government denies any of this abuse is happening. Does that suggest that the government is reluctant or incapable of reining in some of the purported abuses of the PMF?
MR TONER: Again – and I’m aware of the, as you talked about it, the separation. I’m hesitant to get too into the weeds in terms of what’s happening on the ground there. My understanding is that part of that is simply an effort to ensure that members of Daesh aren’t trying to escape Fallujah. So there has – there does need to be some measure of screening conducted. Now, how that’s conducted is certainly important, and whether it’s done respectfully is also important, and we’re looking at that closely as we see these allegations.
QUESTION: There are quite a few warnings from human rights groups and others saying that the potential for abuse is imminent as the city and then other cities are cleared. Is there some kind of mechanism beyond the good faith assurances from Baghdad that they are attempting to rein in the PMF; as was alluded to earlier, that --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- a lot of this – that sectarian division is what lead to some of these – ISIL to be able to take hold, et cetera?
MR TONER: I’m – we are in close contact with the command and control of the Iraqi Security Forces and – as well as the Iraqi Government as they conduct these operations. This is an Iraqi-led operation, and we’ve been very clear about that. But we still believe that the government is committed to conducting an operation that is respectful of the civilian population, and we’ve seen it by the fact that they have opened some of these safe passageways for civilians to escape from the city. But it’s something, obviously, we’re keeping an eye on.
MR TONER: Thank you. Please.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: He said, “I think the Saudis” – and this is a quote – “expressed their desire to make certain that they’re not endangering civilians.” And the statement that he is referencing there from the coalition said that coalition forces have fully complied with international law and have a robust process to ensure all targets are genuinely military. And it goes on to say they’ve never use cluster bombs. So my question is: This is a coalition that has targeted clinics and hospitals and schools and factories. How can Secretary Kerry possibly take their assertions that they’re trying not to endanger civilians at face value?
MR TONER: So a couple of points to make on that. One is Saudi Arabia has created an investigation commission to look into and evaluate its military targeting to ensure the protection of civilians as well as to investigate any incidents of civilian casualties or civilian harm during the conflict in Yemen. We’ve also engaged regularly with Saudi Arabia as well as other coalition members on the need to investigate all credible reports of civilian casualties allegedly caused by coalition airstrikes and have reminded the Saudis of their obligations under end use provisions – I’m talking about cluster munitions in this case – as well as encouraging them to do their utmost to avoid harm to civilian populations and to avoid damaging critical infrastructure.
QUESTION: Sure. But the only strike we’ve seen them investigate so far publicly was the attack on an MSF hospital back in October.
MR TONER: That’s right.
QUESTION: And their ambassador to the UN later said that – although he said that that was a mistake, he said that it was because MSF provided the wrong coordinates. So I guess – are we trusting them to investigate their own war crimes? Should they accede to UN investigation of their war crimes?
MR TONER: I think this is obviously something that we are in continued dialogue with Saudi Arabia about. We have been very clear about our concerns about civilian casualties. We do believe that they are able to conduct credible investigations into some of these incidents, but our emphasis more largely, or more broadly, rather, is on the UN political process. We have been very clear that there is no military solution to what’s happening in Yemen, and there is a UN process that needs to be adhered to and pursued by all parties.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Hi. Nice to see you again.
MR TONER: Nice to see you too.
QUESTION: So sort of a follow-up.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: We’ve been talking about different wrong things that your friends and allies are doing around the world. And so the UN has looked into what Ukraine is doing, what Kyiv is doing, and they have come to the conclusion that the Kyiv government allows torture, runs secret jails. What is your response to the UN report?
MR TONER: I’m sorry, you’re referring to what report exactly?
QUESTION: Ivan Simonovic, and it’s in the Times today, in the Times of London. The SBU is systematically rounding up and torturing suspected rebel sympathizers. UN assistant secretary-general for human rights made the presentation in Kyiv today.
MR TONER: Oh, okay. I think I know what --
QUESTION: And then he presented the report.
MR TONER: Yeah. So we have read the report.
QUESTION: You have?
MR TONER: We have. I know you’re shocked we actually read reports. We’re deeply troubled that the conflict in Ukraine has now claimed over 90 – 9,000 lives, injured more than 20,000 people. We once again call on the so-called authorities in the separatist-controlled areas to cease their human rights abuses, including killings, tortures, ill treatment, illegal detention, forced labor, as well as restrictions on freedom of movement, peaceful assembly, and expression. We also call on them to allow in UN monitors whose mandate would cover the entirety of Ukraine, including Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine.
And at the same time, we also call on the Government of Ukraine to ensure a prompt and thorough and transparent investigation and appropriate prosecution of all persons responsible for alleged incidents of abuses perpetrated by its forces, including those contained – that are described in the UN report.
QUESTION: So it’s a UN report. It’s alleged --
MR TONER: It is a UN report.
QUESTION: Alleged means what? UN alleges that?
MR TONER: Yes. And we – as I said, we call on the UN – or the UN – the Ukrainian Government to hold its own forces and own people accountable for their actions in these incidents.
QUESTION: One incident that we’ve been calling for Ukraine to have people accountable is the massacre in Odessa, the holocaust in Odessa two years ago.
MR TONER: Yeah. That’s --
QUESTION: What’s – this same guy, Mr. Simonovic, the same UN person, said there’s been, quote/unquote, “no significant progress” in that investigation. How much more time do we need for the investigation to become significant, to make significant progress?
MR TONER: Well, first of all, obviously it was a terrible tragedy what occurred in Odessa, and we’ve been very clear since the immediate aftermath of that tragedy that we believe it should be promptly or fully investigated by the Ukrainian authorities. And we continue that, to urge that.
QUESTION: And lastly --
MR TONER: But it’s really for them to --
QUESTION: Do you, since --
MR TONER: It’s really for them, rather, to speak to the timeline for that investigation.
QUESTION: Since this is a government that you – I would call it sponsor and defend at any turn, at every turn – do you accept any responsibility of your own for what that government is doing and not doing in terms of upholding human rights?
MR TONER: Well, Andrei, I would respond to your question by reminding everyone in this room what has happened in Ukraine, which is that Russia seized territory belonging to the country of Ukraine – Crimea – and then supported separatists in eastern Ukraine to create a conflict that the Government of Ukraine and the armed forces of Ukraine have been struggling to deal with for the past several years.
So let’s be very clear on the fact that a sovereign nation had that – had its sovereignty violated by its neighbor, Russia, and continues to respond to that threat on its soil. It has made a number of reforms, both economic and political, and has made a consistent effort to comply with its commitments on the Minsk agreement. We have not seen, frankly, Russia or the separatists it backs meet that same standard. So let’s be very clear about where the responsibility for the situation in Ukraine lies.
QUESTION: And if I may, I just want you --
MR TONER: One more, yeah.
QUESTION: -- to take one question, because I don’t expect you to have an answer for that.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: A Russian citizen has been detained somewhere in Illinois. It’s a family situation. She is the mother of a child whom she, I understand, take – took out of the country. So can I ask someone at the Press Office to find out what really happened?
MR TONER: Sure, we can look into it. I mean, hard for me to – I don’t have any specifics in front of me, but we’ll look into the case. But obviously, consular visitation would be expected, but I don’t have any more details about – yeah.
QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Let’s get down – yeah.
MR TONER: Yeah, let’s do it. I know, I know.
QUESTION: Yeah. On the eighth session of the S&ED in Beijing, and when will the U.S. delegation arrive in Beijing? And can you tell us more about the scale of the U.S. delegation this year to attend the S&ED and the associated dialogues? How many U.S. government agencies will be involved?
MR TONER: Well, it’s a joint delegation, if you will, with the Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew and then Secretary of State John Kerry. We have done a background briefing, but I don’t have a lot of details to share with you at this point in time, except to say that it runs the gamut of our relationship with China and it’s an opportunity for us to sit down with our Chinese counterparts on both the security realm, economic realm, and really talk about, as I said, the breadth of issues that we jointly focus on – everything from our ability to combat climate change to increasing trade and trade standards to dealing with difficult issues like human rights.
QUESTION: And do you have any numbers? How many government agencies will be involved this time?
MR TONER: I don’t. I will try to get those for you. I don’t have them in front of me. I apologize. Please.
QUESTION: And also, the S&ED speaks to the larger relationship between the U.S. and China. What are the hot spots of the relationship this year, and briefly, what kind of agreements do you expect the U.S. to reach this time?
MR TONER: Well, I don’t want to point to any agreements before they’ve actually had a chance to meet and to talk. Look, I mean, I think we all know the U.S.-China relationship is incredibly significant, incredibly important strategically, to both countries and to the region. It’s pretty clear where some of the hot spots are with regard to – as you put it – with regard to the relationship, among which are our ongoing concerns about the human rights situation in China. And we will raise those concerns with the Chinese Government.
We’ll also, no doubt, talk about some of the concerns about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and our commitment to ensuring that ships and airplanes are allowed to freely navigate that space and that territory, and that the United States takes no position on any of the competing sovereignty claims of the South China Sea, but we do believe that there needs to be a consistent position among the countries with regards to upholding the principles of international law and freedom of navigation. So that’s going to be another issue that we likely are going to discuss with the Chinese.
QUESTION: So what proportion is it for the South China Sea issue in the whole dialogue? How much it will make --
MR TONER: I don’t want to overstate it. Again, there’s a lot, and we’ve seen this in so many regards, including on COP 21, our climate change agreement, where we can cooperate effectively with China. We saw it with the JCPOA and the Iran nuclear deal, where, when we find areas of commonality and common purpose with China, we can also accomplish great things.
QUESTION: And in the past seven years, how effective do you think it is for the S&ED between U.S. and China?
MR TONER: We believe it’s a very effective mechanism. And any time when you can get senior members of the Chinese Government and the U.S. Government to sit down and talk about the issues that bind us, it’s effective and it’s important.
QUESTION: Can we move on to other --
QUESTION: Can I follow up?
QUESTION: Yeah, a follow-up on China?
MR TONER: Sure, let’s finish.
QUESTION: Yes. You mentioned human rights a couple times. Today marks the 27th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. In your statement you called for the full public accounting of those killed, detained, or missing. Can you expand on how specifically you would like to see China address this issue?
MR TONER: No, I’ll leave it right there. I mean, we’ve made this request in the past. We believe it’s important for the Chinese Government to provide a full accounting to the Chinese people and to the international community of what happened in Tiananmen Square.
QUESTION: And what does that mean specifically?
MR TONER: Again, I think it’s – we’ll look to the Chinese Government to address the international community’s concerns over what happened on that day, and I’m not going to dictate what we’re looking to see them address, only that there are questions that remain.
QUESTION: Can I ask some questions about the THAAD system?
MR TONER: About?
QUESTION: THAAD system.
MR TONER: THAAD system. Sure.
QUESTION: Wait, can I follow up on the Tiananmen Square?
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. No, let’s finish with Tiananmen. Sure.
QUESTION: Do you have any concerns that the statement that you put out today will have a negative response from China, negatively impact the S&ED?
MR TONER: No, and precisely because of what I just said, which is that we believe that our dialogue with China is strong enough and expansive enough that we can talk about areas where we disagree, but we can also talk about areas – and many – there are many – on which we can cooperate.
MR TONER: I don’t.
QUESTION: By moving forward with THAAD, is the U.S. dismissing other options to protect South Korea that would not violate neighboring countries’ territorial security?
MR TONER: I’m sorry, what was the second part of your question? I apologize.
QUESTION: I mean, is the U.S. dismissing other options to protect South Korea that would not violate neighboring countries’ territorial security?
MR TONER: No, I don’t think so. Look, I mean, we’re always going to – as we say not just about the security of the Korean Peninsula but in other parts of the world, we never take any option off the table. But I think in response to the evolving threat posed by North Korea, we did make a decision to begin formal consultations regarding the viability of THAAD, which is Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, and those consultations are ongoing.
QUESTION: Yeah. So my colleagues and I have repeatedly asked whether the U.S. has any concern over China’s response with no direct answer given. Would you be willing to answer the question now?
MR TONER: In addressing Chinese concerns --
MR TONER: -- what we’ve said is that THAAD is a purely defensive system designed to counter short and medium-term – or medium-range regional ballistic missiles, so it would not impact China nor would it impact Russia’s strategic deterrent.
QUESTION: One quick question on Latin America?
MR TONER: Sure, and then I’ll get to you, Said.
QUESTION: Great. So recently the U.S. joined the OAS in expressing concerns about Venezuela’s democracy, and yet we have yet to see any concerns displayed about what’s happening in Brazil. This week it was reported that the new ruling government, which, again, was not elected – came to power in an unelected fashion – has been using the military to spy on the PT, which of course was the incumbent party before they took power. I mean, is that really consistent with democratic norms? And why is there sort of an inconsistency in that we’re willing to criticize Venezuela sort of violating democratic norms, but we’re – we haven’t done the same for Brazil yet?
MR TONER: I’m not aware of the particular allegations that you’ve raised, and what I’ve said about Brazil previously remains. We believe it is a strong democracy, that it has the kind of institutions that can weather the political crisis that it’s undergoing. But in terms of your specific allegations, I just don’t have any --
QUESTION: Do strong democracies allow the military to spy on political opponents?
MR TONER: I just said I don’t --
QUESTION: No, I mean in theory – in theory.
MR TONER: I just said I don’t have any – I don’t have any – I don’t have any details of what you’re alleging.
QUESTION: Mark, when you say that you have confidence in Brazil’s democracy, I mean, you believe that the impeachment proceeding is legit and that – as an outside observer, recognizing that you’re not wanting to interfere in an internal political dispute in another country, but as you look at it from the outside, do you believe that the impeachment proceeding is a valid one and that they are – the Brazilians are, in fact, handling this situation in a way that comports with their constitution and their broader commitment to democracy?
MR TONER: I’m going to leave it where I left it just now, which is that --
QUESTION: Or are you concerned that maybe no?
MR TONER: No, I think – look, I mean, there’s no doubt that it’s a time of political upheaval in Brazil, but we remain confident in their ability to --
QUESTION: So you remain confident in the ability of the Brazilian – of Brazil’s institutions to weather this storm --
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: -- and return to a --
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: Can I move on to --
QUESTION: Can we back up to --
QUESTION: -- the Palestinian-Israeli issue?
QUESTION: Well, can we back up to Venezuela for a minute?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: First, do you have any comment on the OAS report on the state of democracy in Venezuela? And also, what’s the U.S. position on the delays related to the recall referendum for Venezuela?
MR TONER: So, first of all, we do welcome the secretary-general’s report, which we view as indicative of the concern that the OAS and its members have regarding the state of democracy in Venezuela. The secretary-general’s invocation of Article 20 of the Inter-American Dialogue – or Democratic Charter, rather, will open a much-needed discussion of Venezuela’s – about Venezuela within the OAS Permanent Council. And it corresponds with other efforts to fashion dialogue within Venezuela to address political, economic, social, and humanitarian dimensions of the crisis that confronts the country.
The OAS, we believe, is an appropriate forum for the region to express concerns, to offer assistance, and to make recommendations. We must continue defending the fundamental rights articulated in the OAS Charter, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and other international instruments related to democracy and human rights.
And you said about the postponement recall?
MR TONER: Yeah. Well, we’re concerned about the ongoing pattern by Venezuelan authorities that has resulted in delays of the review of the opposition’s request for a recall referendum. We call on Venezuela’s authorities to allow this process to move forward in a timely fashion, and we encourage the appropriate institutions to ensure that Venezuelans can exercise their right to participate in this process in keeping with Venezuela’s democratic institutions, practices, and principles consistent with the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
And last question.
QUESTION: Hold on, Mark.
MR TONER: Yes, sir. Please.
QUESTION: You said – I wanted to – I might have misheard you. You said the OAS was the “appropriate,” not inappropriate, right?
MR TONER: It’s – the OAS is an appropriate fora.
QUESTION: “An, an, an” appropriate?
MR TONER: “An” appropriate, yes, thank you.
QUESTION: Okay. And secondly, I mean, you just – those are two very long responses, critical responses, about the situation in Venezuela. And yet Brazil, which is a much bigger country and with – a country with which you have enjoyed better relations merits, what, two sentences?
MR TONER: I just – again, I don’t have anything to comment on the ongoing political dimensions of the crisis there. I don’t.
QUESTION: Wait, but you – but yet you have plenty to say about the --
MR TONER: We do.
QUESTION: -- political situation in Venezuela.
MR TONER: We do.
QUESTION: Why is that?
MR TONER: Well, we’re just – we’re very concerned about the current --
QUESTION: Why aren’t you very concerned about Brazil?
MR TONER: Again – well, look, I’ve said my piece. I mean, I don’t have anything to add.
QUESTION: Really? Okay.
QUESTION: Last week, you said that the makeup of the Israeli cabinet --
QUESTION: Can I – can I ask --
QUESTION: -- raised questions. Does the makeup of the new Brazilian cabinet raise any questions?
MR TONER: Look, guys, I will see if we have anything more to say about the situation in Brazil.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Today, there was a conference that was supposed to be but it seemed to be anticlimactic or tepid. The statement did not really come up with anything.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: So I’m just asking you, what would be the role of the United States going forward? I mean, what is the role of Secretary Kerry as a result of this meeting going forward?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, look, I do think today’s ministerial – we found it to be an opportunity to demonstrate that the international community still is very much committed to the goal of achieving a two-state solution. Obviously, you saw the communique that the French put out. I don’t know that there’s any follow-up role that we immediately see for ourselves. I think there was a good discussion about what makes sense in the current period of time that we find ourselves in and how to create the kind of conditions that we believe can lead to a meaningful – a rather meaningful progress. I think we all share – all the governments and countries that were there today share the same goal of advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace and a two-state solution. It remains a priority. But there’s also a recognition that what we really need is solid leadership on both sides to create the conditions for a two-state solution.
QUESTION: But you keep saying “on both sides.” The Palestinians have been occupied this weekend for 49 years. I mean, must they continue to endure that military occupation and, I mean, indignities that come along with it and so on? I mean, should – isn’t it time, perhaps, to move this process into a serious international effort, so to speak --
MR TONER: Well --
QUESTION: -- maybe so you can place some measures that can be implemented?
MR TONER: It’s long past – it’s long past time and we remain committed to doing that and advancing that process. But it’s up to, ultimately, the two parties to make progress in that regard. So we’re going to continue to work with both sides as well as key international stakeholders to try to get there.
QUESTION: So --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- did you see the supreme leader, the – Iran’s – Iranian supreme leader --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- the top guy there --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I realize you don’t like to call him the supreme leader or maybe you do, but that – you saw his comments today about how the U.S. has violated the nuclear deal, that he kind of criticized Rouhani for having – for having negotiated the agreement and said that the Americans are not trustworthy, and also that the U.S. and Britain, et cetera, remain Iran’s big enemies and – that Iran will never cooperate on anything with you guys. Do you have any (inaudible) --
MR TONER: Not really, Matt. I mean --
QUESTION: -- response to that?
MR TONER: His rhetoric is always somewhat hyperbolic and so we take it with a grain of salt --
QUESTION: A grain of salt.
MR TONER: -- and don’t necessarily rise to the bait, as the – if I could put it that way. So, no.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Thanks, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:17 p.m.)
DPB # 96