Daily Press Briefing - June 8, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:09 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: My goodness, look what the cat’s dragged in. (Laughter.) Happy --
QUESTION: Wednesday. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: I was looking at David. He was giving me nothing. He raised his eyes up to heaven. (Laughter.) Happy Wednesday, everyone.
MR TONER: Just very quickly at the top – well, first of all, I wanted to welcome – we have some Ukrainian visitors, I know, in the back of the room from the ministry of foreign affairs in Kyiv who are here on an International Visitors Program, so welcome to the State Department briefing.
A couple of things at the top: First, I wanted to give you an update on the issue many of you have been seized with, which is the edited State Department video of December 2nd, 2013 daily press briefing. As you know, Secretary Kerry spoke out about this incident last week and highlighted his strong interest in determining what exactly happened, which is why the Office of the Legal Adviser here at the State Department is continuing to look into this matter.
Also, as many of you have noted, Chairman Chaffetz from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has also requested information about this incident, and we expect to provide a preliminary response to the chairman later today. And we’re going to continue to provide additional information as we are able to. So just a brief update there.
Also, I wanted to speak about Haiti. The United States regrets the decision by the Provisional Electoral Council to restart the presidential elections from the first round. This will increase time and resources needed to complete the 2015 electoral process and further delay installation of a constitutionally elected president. The Haitian people deserve to have their voices heard, not deferred. The United States regrets that the electoral process has extended yet again, with the president-elect unlikely to be installed before February 7th, 2017.
As noted in the June 6 Core Group statement, Haiti has an urgent need to have elected representatives at all levels of government, including at the most senior level. We look forward to the prompt seating of a democratically elected president who can work with the United States and with other partners to address the many challenges facing Haiti. The United States welcomes steps to make Haitian elections more credible and more transparent.
QUESTION: Right. Well, on Haiti, just – I mean, is it – what’s more important? For them to have a president that was elected under suspect circumstances, or for them to have a president that was elected in a clean and --
MR TONER: I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. And I think our concern is that by now taking this back to zero, or from the starting line, it’s just going to add --
MR TONER: -- the length of the – to the length --
QUESTION: But I’m --
MR TONER: Sorry. It’s going to add to the length of the process. And there needs to be leadership installed there.
QUESTION: So speed is better than --
MR TONER: Again, we don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
QUESTION: Well, but weren’t there issues with the first round?
MR TONER: There were, but we believe they can be addressed without, again, restarting the entire process.
QUESTION: On the --
QUESTION: Yeah, on the video.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: What – can you preview at all what you are going to say in your response to Representative Chaffetz?
MR TONER: I can’t, and part of the reason is we have not yet replied or provided that partial response. Beyond saying --
QUESTION: I mean, are you going to be able to tell him anything more than you have told – you or Kirby have told us from --
MR TONER: Again, without getting in front of our response to Congress, look, what I think we’ll be able to say is that we have looked at additional areas of information. You can guess probably that that includes emails, other documentation that pertains to the issue. Up until this point, we’ve not found any – any evidence, any conclusive evidence, of what happened or why. And that’s still where we are, but we’re going to continue to look at additional troves of information in an effort to find out, again, what happened.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on this?
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: I mean, you said that the Office of the Legal Adviser was continuing to investigate. But I thought that last week you had said that you had run into a dead end, and that if somebody else brought you information, you would look at it. So the investigation continues?
MR TONER: So you’re absolutely right; I did say that last week and – which is why I came out and offered this change, if you will, in our assessment. And that is basically because the Secretary said he wants to dive deeper into this, look more into what happened, and try to get to the bottom of what happened.
And so what our Office of Legal Adviser did was go back and look at what are other areas where there could be information. And again, some of that is emails, and we talked about that last week. So we’ve – again, we’ve – we’re trying to collect emails of – that are pertinent or relevant to the issue at hand and go through those systematically.
QUESTION: Are there --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are there any emails that are pertinent?
MR TONER: We’ve not found the – what we’ve basically done is try to determine, based on the individuals who were in the Public Affairs Office or the Spokesperson’s Office at that time. We’ve not found anything that indicates, as I said, yet why this was done and by whom.
QUESTION: So the Legal Adviser’s Office prior to the Secretary’s statement that this was clumsy, stupid, and I think inappropriate --
MR TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: -- had not looked at or for emails?
MR TONER: They had not looked at the email traffic. What they’ve done is – and we talked about this last week – they had conducted interviews – or an interview with the technician.
QUESTION: I have a question here.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Why – look, the people in the Legal Adviser’s Office are very smart and highly qualified people, and they choose to work in government rather than making many, many, many multiples of their salaries in the private sector. But in at least two signal respects, it seems that they failed to do things that you would assume anybody seriously interested in looking into this would have done.
One, they didn’t, until the question got raised in public, look at phone records, right? You guys didn’t even look into that until we asked you about it. And it turns out you don’t have phone records from three years ago. Fine, but they didn’t even, apparently, ask that question.
Secondly, they didn’t, in the course of their review, didn’t even look at emails. So why is it that theirs is the office that where this review or investigation should now be – they missed two obvious things right off the bat, so why should they carry out the --
MR TONER: So a couple of --
QUESTION: Why not have somebody else do this who will be more rigorous?
MR TONER: Right. Well, I think – so a couple of responses. First of all – and we talked about this last week – is that in spite of the fact that this was an ill-advised action that was taken, there were no rules broken. This was – and we talked about this – the fact that there was nothing governing the editing of State Department video at the time. We have remedied that going forward so that it will never happen again. But the fact was that, as unfortunate as this incident was, it didn’t break any known regulations or policies.
That said, based on an individual coming forward to say I was the person who was contacted about this, they did interview that person. There are always other leads you can follow, and you raised many of them last week when you were asking questions about this. And so given the Secretary’s strong interest, given Congress’s strong interest, and given the media’s strong interest, we’ve decided to continue to look at that.
And we also said last week that as new information does become available, if it does become available, we would certainly pursue that as well.
QUESTION: But why – I still don’t understand why – why you do not --
MR TONER: Why them and why not us?
QUESTION: -- why wasn’t – well, two things. One, why wasn’t a more rigorous review conducted in the first place, right?
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: And then second, given that the original review carried out by the Legal Adviser’s Office does not appear to have been as rigorous – well, manifestly was not as rigorous as it might have been – why have them do it? Why not find somebody --
MR TONER: Well, they are – they are an outside entity not within the Bureau of Public Affairs.
QUESTION: Well, yeah. But the Bureau of Public Affairs --
MR TONER: And they’re --
QUESTION: -- is not the whole world. They’re part of the State Department.
MR TONER: I understand that.
QUESTION: So why not – investigations are typically – if you want an independent investigation, go get somebody who is independent who doesn’t report to the same boss to investigate.
MR TONER: First off, this – and again, we’re using different terminology here and I understand that. And we’ve used investigation – “investigation” is probably overstating it. Look, we’re looking into the incident. But again, no rules were broken, no laws were broken, no policies were broken. But we are trying to get to the bottom of what happened so that we can know what happened, we can understand what happened, why it happened going forward.
As to the rigor of that examination or whatever you want to call it, I think we’re looking again at other possible leads. That includes emails. That includes phone records, as you raised. We’ll continue to look at this, and as we get more information we’ll happily share it.
QUESTION: Right. You said that there are always other leads you can follow, but that wasn’t the message we were getting last week and the week before.
MR TONER: Well, and it would also --
QUESTION: It was that you had run into a dead end --
MR TONER: I would also say that – I would also say what I just said, which is that we’ve pursued other leads and found no information, conclusive information, about what happened.
MR TONER: We’ve found no information.
QUESTION: Okay. But --
QUESTION: What other (inaudible)?
QUESTION: But you’re saying that --
MR TONER: Looking at email records primarily.
QUESTION: But you’re saying that you are continuing to look – if you’re not – if you’ve already gone through the emails and found nothing, where else do you look?
MR TONER: We haven’t gone through all the emails. We’re continuing to do that.
QUESTION: Can we move on?
QUESTION: No, actually --
MR TONER: Oh, Margaret.
QUESTION: Actually, some questions about this.
MR TONER: Sure, Margaret. Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Mark, can you tell us – you said looking at email records from people in the Public Affairs Office. That includes the spokesperson, the deputy spokesperson, or is this just staff? I mean, how are you defining the parameters?
MR TONER: Sure. We’re looking at leadership at the time, so people who were in leadership positions. I’ll put it that way.
QUESTION: And have you – and in the search so far, you’ve found no record of any request for this or interest in this --
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: -- or any evidence of tampering so far?
MR TONER: No, no.
QUESTION: Then can you be more explicit about who leadership is? Does that mean the assistant secretary? Does that mean the DASs in the bureau? Does that mean the spokesperson? Does that mean the deputy --
MR TONER: We’re looking at all – all the relative people who were occupying leadership positions. So spokesperson, deputy spokesperson, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries at the time who would have had purview over the video. So – and again, while we’re looking at all of this, let me again be very clear that both the spokesperson at the time and the deputy spokesperson at the time both came out strongly with statements publicly that they had nothing to do with it, no knowledge of it, and we’ve found nothing thus far to – that in any way indicates otherwise.
QUESTION: But to be clear, you know that the request came from the Public Affairs Office but you don’t know who the request came from within that office?
MR TONER: Yes, and we’ve talked about that. The person who was interviewed, who did actually carry out the edit, said that they were called on the phone by someone in Public Affairs Bureau who directed them to make this edit, but they don’t remember who that person was.
QUESTION: Was it only one person who --
QUESTION: But so that – yeah. And can you take orders from anyone? I mean, or is it just anyone who works in Public Affairs can ask for an edit and it’s not like it has to come from a certain office?
MR TONER: Well, again, the person who carried out this edit said that they were contacted by someone from an office who would have been able to ask for such an edit, but they don’t remember who that person was.
QUESTION: Or even the gender of the person who asked?
MR TONER: They do, but I’m not going to get into that right now.
QUESTION: How about the office?
MR TONER: Again, we’re looking at all of this. We know what the office was, but we haven’t found any kind of leads or any links to indicate who that person was.
QUESTION: And who – was only one person interviewed? You said “the person who was interviewed.” Was only one person interviewed as part of their review?
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: So again, and I don’t meant to belabor this, but I don’t understand why you feel that a sufficiently rigorous review is going to be carried out by the office – estimable though many of its lawyers are – is going to be carried out – they interviewed one person. They didn’t look for phone records. They didn’t look at emails. Why on Earth don’t you get somebody who will go at this with greater rigor and independence rather than give it to the office that didn’t do three pretty obvious things?
MR TONER: Well, look, Arshad, again, they’re the ones who have carried out the initial examination of this incident. They’re able to take this as far as we’re able to take it. But we can only follow the leads that are viable and we can only look at the records that are available.
QUESTION: But they didn’t follow the leads or look at the records that were available when they initially looked at this.
MR TONER: But we’re doing that now.
QUESTION: They talked to one person.
MR TONER: Who came forward. Yes.
QUESTION: Who came forward. This is not looking high and low.
MR TONER: Well, again --
QUESTION: Does this person work inside Public Affairs or are there other parts of the State Department in which video editors work?
MR TONER: No, work inside the bureau.
QUESTION: Do you know, Mark, and – you said that you had an – you do know what the office was and you do know the – what you were – what they were told the sex of the person was. Is that the kind of information that will go to Congressman Chaffetz, or is that --
MR TONER: I believe so.
QUESTION: Are you providing Congressman Chaffetz’s committee with any actual documents today, or are you just writing a letter of response?
MR TONER: We’re writing a letter, obviously, first of all. I’m not sure of what amount of documents we’re providing with them – providing to them.
QUESTION: Do you expect to provide any or are you not sure of that?
MR TONER: I’m not sure. We’ll provide certainly an assessment of the documents that we’ve looked at, but as to whether we’ll provide the actual documents, I’m not sure.
QUESTION: And have you come across any evidence at all of any other instances of such editing?
MR TONER: No, we haven’t. We haven’t. And again, that’s a – that’s also a fairly large task to look at all that, but we haven’t – we’re not aware of any other incidents like this.
QUESTION: But you – and the last thing. I think you said last week that you were not looking for such evidence anymore. It’s not like you’ve assigned somebody to watch every briefing for the last four years.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: So you’re not actually looking for it.
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: Mark, and to clarify, State has not sent this information yet to the Hill? It’s going to --
MR TONER: No, we’ll do so later today. We’ll get back to them with a preliminary response, and then probably a fuller response in about a week or so.
QUESTION: Mark, I came in late, so forgive me --
MR TONER: Hey.
QUESTION: -- if this has been asked.
MR TONER: Yes. Yeah, sure, Carol.
QUESTION: Roughly how many people are in the pool of potential suspects?
MR TONER: I don’t know if I would put it that way – (laughter) – Carol, but appreciate your direct question. Again, you know, we – what we’ve looked at over the past week or so, and what I talked about earlier, was the fact that we looked at those who were in leadership positions at the time who might have had some connection with this incident. You know, if you ask me for a number – again, I don’t want to call them – term them suspects, but they might have been aware of what was happening, or what happened, and it’s probably about four or five people.
QUESTION: Is the intention just to find out what happened, or will the person if discovered face disciplinary action?
MR TONER: Well, there is no – again, there was no policy, there was no law, there was no regulation broken. You know, we’re trying to get to the bottom of this, partly for closure, partly so we understand what happened and why it happened.
QUESTION: So there’s no reason why this person shouldn’t just save you time and come forward?
MR TONER: Well, you know, that’s not for me to answer.
QUESTION: If you don’t find the person who issued the instruction, who is ultimately responsible?
MR TONER: Who is ultimately responsible for this?
QUESTION: Well, if I --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: If I commit some kind of journalistic crime, my editor will be held responsible for it if I can’t be --
MR TONER: Well, look, I like to think that – I don’t know about being held responsible, but I like to think that Assistant Secretary Kirby has been very forthright in accepting ownership of this, and then trying to remedy it going forward, but also, as I said, being as transparent as we can with respect – while respecting the fact that there’s people’s privacy at stake here, with the media, and certainly as responsive as we possibly can to Congress.
QUESTION: Can we go to --
QUESTION: So you said this is definitely a call that was made from someone within the Public Affairs Office, though?
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: Well, we --
QUESTION: It’s just that the person – the level and title of that person is what is unclear.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: I thought last week you had said that the person who received the call said they believed it to have been someone --
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: -- in the Public Affairs Office. Do you now know for a fact that it is someone who is in the Public Affairs Bureau?
MR TONER: No, this is based on – again, this is based on the recollection of the technician who carried out this edit, which is that they were – that the request was made over the phone, and that the caller was passing on a request from elsewhere in the bureau.
QUESTION: And this is – since you only interviewed one person, I’m not going to unfortunately have to ask some of the questions that I asked last week, but have you now interviewed the supervisor of the person who received the call?
MR TONER: I don’t know if we’ve had a formal interview of that person – with that person. I know we’ve talked about it to that person, I don’t know if we’ve – if the Office of Legal Advisor has held a formal interview with him.
QUESTION: So the reason I’m asking --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: -- is that we were told either last week or the week before that the person who received the call discussed it with their supervisor --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- and they concluded that it came from the Bureau of Public Affairs, and from a level of authority and responsibility that they should act on this. And so if you – I guess the next question is, has the supervisor who discussed this with the person who got the call have any more granular recollection since they concluded that it was someone of responsibility?
MR TONER: No, I don’t believe so. We’ve asked that question, and they haven’t.
QUESTION: Is the supervisor the same person as their intermediary? The editor --
MR TONER: You mean the technician?
QUESTION: -- received a call from someone who was passing on a call?
MR TONER: No, different person.
QUESTION: So there’s two other people --
MR TONER: Different person.
QUESTION: -- the technician has spoken to?
MR TONER: That’s right. That’s right.
QUESTION: Now I don’t remember what I said.
QUESTION: Do you – have you heard --
MR TONER: Absolutely.
QUESTION: -- the point about the ISIS pulling out of the Aleppo area, or can you confirm these reports (inaudible.)
QUESTION: I’m so sorry, could I ask one last --
MR TONER: It’s okay.
QUESTION: Please, ask him.
MR TONER: Go for it.
QUESTION: Just last –
QUESTION: We basically asked every possible question --
QUESTION: No, here’s one that we haven’t asked.
QUESTION: -- under the sun relating to this, but go ahead.
QUESTION: It – on emails, are you reviewing not merely the State Department emails, but do any of the people who are – who you’re looking at have private emails that they use for official purposes, and are you asking to look at those?
MR TONER: My understanding is we’re not asking to look at their private emails. We’re just looking at their official email.
QUESTION: And are you going to ask them if they communicated about official matters on their personal email?
MR TONER: I don’t know, I’ll take the question.
QUESTION: Because that’s another way in which this could have been --
MR TONER: I understand.
QUESTION: -- communicated, and you’re not going to get to the bottom of this, assuming you want to get to the bottom of it, unless you, as you said, look at every lead you can.
MR TONER: I can check on whether we’ll do that.
QUESTION: Except – well --
MR TONER: But it’s --
QUESTION: -- I mean, Arshad has a point. But the technician that did this doesn’t remember --
MR TONER: Precisely.
QUESTION: -- getting an email or --
MR TONER: She got – it was – the request was --
QUESTION: It was on the phone.
MR TONER: -- relayed by phone. And we’ve gone into it with that understanding, that this was relayed by telephone. And so that partly explains why we didn’t go immediately into looking at email records, but now they’re doing so.
QUESTION: But isn’t it – is it not conceivable, since they received it – they – the person who received the call says they believe that it was from someone who was passing on a message from somebody else. So is it --
MR TONER: It’s always conceivable, yes. Sure.
QUESTION: It’s conceivable somebody sent a private email from the person who requested it to the person who transmitted it to the technician, who talked to her supervisor and who then cut it. So --
Please. You were asking about Aleppo.
QUESTION: I was asking you – yes.
MR TONER: And I apologize, I completely forgot your question.
QUESTION: My question is: There are reports that ISIS have pulled out --
MR TONER: Ah.
QUESTION: -- from the Aleppo area.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: Or disengaged – or separated themselves from other groups and so on.
MR TONER: So a couple of updates. We certainly, as you noted – we do welcome the advance of Syrian opposition fighters against Daesh along the Marea Line in northwest Syria. This advance increases the pressure on Daesh, which is a positive development, and it’s a critical area along the Turkish border as the Syrian Democratic Forces simultaneously continue to advance from the east near Manbij City. So this is a continuation of the pressure from various sides that we’re – that the anti-Daesh coalition is exerting on Daesh in Syria, and certainly it’s having an effect.
QUESTION: Okay. Now this – ISIS, or purportedly ISIS withdrawal, does it also include groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah and others? And the reason I’m asking this --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- would that then allow for maybe heavier strikes by the coalition or by the Russians or by the Syrian Government and so on? If they are really delineated.
MR TONER: Right. I don’t have clarity on whether Nusrah is part of this withdrawal. I just don’t at this point. But I would note when you’re talking about the situation around Aleppo, we would also like to condemn today’s bombings of three hospitals or medical facilities in Aleppo. The fact that the regime is once again targeting medical facilities is unconscionable and should be strongly condemned, and we are. This is inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. It’s inconsistent with commitments that the ISSG has made and regime has made itself, and it continues to exacerbate the suffering of innocent civilians.
QUESTION: What is your reaction to Bashar al-Assad’s statement that there is no political solution on the horizon and that only in essence a military solution can be achieved, or victory, or what he calls victory?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, what’s my reaction? He’s sadly mistaken if he thinks there’s a military solution in Syria. And the ISSG has laid out a roadmap for a political resolution. It is up to all members of the ISSG to exert influence on the parties on the ground, and that includes the opposition as well as the regime, to adhere to the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, and to engage in the political process. But of course we’re not expecting some sea change in Assad’s behavior. As I said yesterday, his speech was vintage Assad. He’s been in this for five – over five years. He’s carried out horrific violence against his own people. So it’s not surprising that he’s still fully committed to what he believes is a military victory. But that said, there is no military solution here.
QUESTION: Finally --
MR TONER: Yeah, go --
QUESTION: -- what is the status with the aid? Can you update us on --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Sure, sure. Absolutely. A little bit of updating on the humanitarian assistance front. We have learned – or heard, rather – that the regime may approve ground transport for some humanitarian assistance to the besieged town of Daraya on Friday. We’re obviously skeptical of these reports, but again, we have heard that they may allow them.
We continue to call on the Assad regime to allow all humanitarian assistance to reach all besieged areas as designated by the UN, not those areas that the UN – or that the regime deems are allowable. The UN needs to be the arbiter here of where these besieged areas lie – excuse me – and the international community needs to focus on the regime’s willful obstruction of full access to the delivery of humanitarian assistance and also to the complete contents of such shipments, because the regime continues to, for lack of a better word, cherry-pick or take out medical supplies and food supplies from some of these convoys. If the regime does not allow full supplies, we will consider it to have reneged on its commitment and continuing a policy of denying food and medicine to needy people as a military tool.
So an update on airdrops: We are working with the UN – and that includes the World Food Program and other relief agencies – to plan appropriate use of air assets for the delivery of humanitarian assistance should the regime continue to deny ground access. We are obviously disappointed, to put it mildly, that after – in the weeks following the May 17th consensus statement that Russia has not taken any demonstrable steps to support the International Syria Support Group’s call for the delivery of humanitarian relief by air. We know that the World Food Program is looking at four communities in need – and that includes Daraya – that haven’t received any outside food assistance since 2012.
QUESTION: Well --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Are they going to ask permission from the government to do those airdrops?
MR TONER: “They” being the World Food Program?
QUESTION: Yeah. Because, I mean, if they are, what’s the point?
MR TONER: What’s the point of --
QUESTION: Of asking permission when they’ve denied it on the ground and are continuing to.
MR TONER: Well, again --
QUESTION: With the exception, potentially, of Friday.
MR TONER: Right. Well, again, I mean, I think we’re going to – we’re – although skeptical, we’re also going to wait and see what happens on Friday.
QUESTION: But I don’t get the --
MR TONER: But I understand your question.
QUESTION: I mean, it doesn’t seem to – I mean, why even bother to say it if they’re going to – that you’re going to do it when you have in the past said that you have to get permission from the government to do it --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- and they’re clear that – it’s clear that they’re not going to give it.
MR TONER: Well, look, I think we’re looking – once again, we’re looking to Russia to exert the influence that it claims to have on the Syrian regime. Russia – Foreign Minister Lavrov was in Vienna when the ISSG made this call for the delivery of humanitarian aid by air if ground access was not available. And --
QUESTION: By June 1st.
MR TONER: By June 1st. And I --
QUESTION: It’s now --
MR TONER: -- am fully aware of the date. And that’s why the WFP is looking at different options. But you talk about air assets and permission – look, Russia actually has air assets on the ground in Syria and ostensibly has the permission of the Syrian government to fly.
QUESTION: So you’re suggesting that, instead of WFP, the Russians can do the airdrops?
MR TONER: I am suggesting.
QUESTION: Okay. Have you raised it with them?
MR TONER: I’m not going to get into specifics, but they’re aware of our concerns.
Please, I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Are they aware of your desire that they do these airdrops?
MR TONER: Again, they are on the ground with air assets in Syria and are able to carry out these kinds of operations. The point here is that there’s a lot of assessments now that June 1st has passed that once again the U.S. has allowed this deadline to pass, but there are more members of the ISSG than just the U.S. And Russia is a key member of the ISSG, and they were there in Vienna, and they committed to this deadline as well. So they can also step up and apply pressure.
Yes, David. I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: Why should Assad doubt that he can have a military solution? He hasn’t lost any ground since the cessation came in. In fact, it has shielded him while he’s continued to bomb hospitals.
MR TONER: Well, look – I mean, that’s a legitimate analysis to say that Russia’s support for Assad has bolstered the regime. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality. But that assumption is predicated on the belief that Russia’s in it for the long haul. They have made clear to us that they are not, that they are committed to a political resolution. And so it comes down to whether they are in word and deed committed to that process. But if that’s the case, then Assad cannot depend on them for the long haul.
QUESTION: How about Iran?
MR TONER: Iran is also a member of the ISSG and is committed to that same process.
QUESTION: You said that there may be an approval for ground access on Friday?
MR TONER: That’s right.
QUESTION: Is that based on a conversation with the Russians that just happened?
MR TONER: I believe so. I don’t have exactly that sourced. I just know that the regime has – may has – may have approved ground transport to Daraya on Friday.
QUESTION: Because hadn’t ostensibly --
MR TONER: (Coughing.) Excuse me.
QUESTION: -- the Russians been negotiating on behalf – or agreeing to things on behalf of the regime when the ISSG met in the first place? So it would seem that – if you’re saying that this is a new development --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- that this approval will happen --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- what is that based on? And was the idea that if it doesn’t happen, airdrops would then be the backup plan? Was that specifically discussed with Kerry and Lavrov? Was it yesterday, I think --
MR TONER: Yeah, I don’t have a – I don’t know if it was specifically discussed in that phone call. I actually spoke to him I think earlier today as well. I don’t know if – sorry. I don’t know where that – I can’t source that information. I just know that we’re aware that – of reports that they are going to allow humanitarian assistance in Daraya.
As for airdrops as the next step, that’s something we’re obviously looking at now, as this deadline falls to the wayside and – but we’ve also said all along that airdrops are not the most efficient way to do this.
QUESTION: How long do you think – I mean, your point’s taken that Americans aren’t the only ones --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- in the ISSG, but they are obviously a significant power here.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: At what point does this become too damaging to the credibility of American diplomacy to keep – keep doing? I mean, I understand the effort and the goodwill and the intent behind it, but when it doesn’t result in any action, it becomes a problem.
MR TONER: Right, it’s a fair question. And the same can be – you can raise – you can ask the same question about the cessation of hostilities. And I talked about a little about – a bit about this yesterday, but the very fact that we have a cessation of hostilities, as imperfect as it is, has saved lives; that’s without question. It’s reduced violence. It has at least gotten a fledgling peace – a political process underway in Geneva, although that has now stalled. But you’re absolutely right in that this entire process is predicated on the fact that the parties on the ground – the regime and the opposition – are willing to adhere to the ceasefire or the cessation of hostilities, and in the regime’s case, allow humanitarian access. If it doesn’t, the whole thing falls apart. And then you’ve got a return to internecine warfare.
QUESTION: Mark, if airdrops take place, they will be conducted by WFP airplanes, correct? I mean, you’re not going to be involved in that. They will be the World Food Program, because they do have --
MR TONER: That is my understanding, Said.
QUESTION: -- they do have airplanes that they are using.
MR TONER: That is my understanding, yeah, yeah. You know about this very well --
QUESTION: Okay, okay.
MR TONER: -- given your background on this one.
QUESTION: But you’re not involved in any way?
MR TONER: No.
Please. Are we done with Syria?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Oh, do you know anything about PYD being invited to the next round of whenever that happens?
MR TONER: I don’t actually. I mean, we’ve talked about it before just in the abstract, saying that as we go forward --
QUESTION: Right, on the side of that.
MR TONER: -- but I haven’t – I haven’t seen – yeah. But I – and that we stay engaged with them clearly, but as for any formal invitation, I’m not aware of that. Let me check into it. But I’d also refer you to Staffan de Mistura.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: There are reports that North Korea has restarted production of plutonium fuel, reprocessing it from the Yongbyon reactor. Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: Well, I – I’m aware that – I think the IAEA has put out a statement earlier today about their assessment that North Korea has resumed operations at Yongbyon, so I’d just refer you to their statement.
QUESTION: You don’t have a – any concerns or --
MR TONER: Well, of course, we have concerns. Yeah. I mean – I mean --
QUESTION: You don’t have a statement? You don’t have a statement?
MR TONER: I thought you were asking specifically about the – that statement. I mean, look, we’re very clear that – and have been very clear that North Korea’s continued provocations raise serious concerns about the security of the Korean Peninsula, and we continue to consult with our other partners in the Six-Party Talks to – on steps that we can take. We’re trying to implement the sanctions and trying to enforce those sanctions in a way that convinces the regime in Pyongyang to come to the table.
QUESTION: Are there any specific actions that you’re looking at taking?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, this was obviously a topic of discussion over the – at the S&ED over the last couple of days. I don’t have anything specific to point to out of that. But the fact is that we do have hard-hitting sanctions. It’s – as always with sanctions, it’s in the implementation where the sting is felt.
QUESTION: Yeah, Mark --
QUESTION: Sorry, I had one on China.
MR TONER: Why don’t you finish and then I’ll come around.
MR TONER: Yep, okay. Oh, let’s finish North Korea then. Please.
QUESTION: There has been a lot of concern expressed by this Administration about some of North Korea’s recent actions. Can you kind of put into context a little bit more why this particular report, the reprocessing of plutonium, would be of special concern to the Administration?
MR TONER: Well, I’d probably refer you to the testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper – I think in February spoke about the potential to reprocess plutonium. I don’t want to get into too much detail because it veers very quickly into intelligence. But of course, speaking broadly about the issue, we’re concerned that North Korea could have access to materials that would allow it to produce nuclear weapons – more nuclear weapons.
QUESTION: One last – one more on North Korea.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure, let’s finish up.
QUESTION: Last week – last week there was in Tokyo Six-Party representatives – South Korea, United States, Japan – they have a meeting up there. Do you have anything on that they talking about this issue or resumption of Six-Party Talks?
MR TONER: You’re talking about the meeting held in Tokyo last week?
MR TONER: Let me look into that. I don’t have a readout in front of me, so I just don’t have anything to --
QUESTION: Okay. You take the question?
MR TONER: I will.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: So I have one on China.
MR TONER: Are we done with North Korea?
QUESTION: Just one on North Korea. In the past, North Korea has collaborated with other regimes seeking nuclear proliferation, including Iran. Are there any concerns that if Yongbyon producing plutonium again, that it could lead to it being exported to other actors around the world?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, proliferation is always a concern, so yes, that’s something we always try to keep an eye on, and we’ve seen that work in various different ways, and it’s something we continue to look at and --
QUESTION: It would be a violation of the JCPOA if Iran was to seek nuclear materials from North Korea?
MR TONER: Of course, and the JCPOA does cut down all the various pathways by which Iran could attain a nuclear weapon. That’s one of them.
Please. Pam, did --
QUESTION: I have several on South Sudan. First of all --
MR TONER: Okay. I’ll get to you, China, I promise.
QUESTION: Yesterday, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar had an op-ed in The New York Times in which they basically ask the U.S. and Britain and other world powers to oppose the establishment of a hybrid court that would try war criminals. First of all, what is State’s reaction to this proposal?
MR TONER: Disappointment. We’re disappointed. We firmly support the African Union’s efforts to establish this hybrid court, which is called for by the peace agreement, which was signed by Presidents Kiir – or President Kiir and First Vice President Machar in August 2015. And we expect the parties to fulfill their responsibilities. Reconciliation and justice are not mutually exclusive, which is why the peace agreement includes both elements and why the United States will make every effort to support the formation of both as critical steps in – towards peace and reconciliation and stability in South Sudan.
QUESTION: They’re calling for, as an alternative, a sort of truth commission. Is there U.S. concern that there could be a lack of accountability for those responsible for murders and other atrocities if this truth commission process went forward?
MR TONER: Well, again, we’re not against a commission for truth and reconciliation and hearing – and healing, rather. That’s – that could be an important part of this peace agreement, and that could look at the root causes of the conflict and lead to, as they have in the past in places like South Africa, some kind of reconciliation and some kind of healing. And in fact, we’ve given $6 million in grant money to support the efforts of the South Sudan Council of Churches to promote reconciliation in the country. But again, they’re not mutually exclusive, and you’re absolutely right that there needs to be accountability. And so that’s why we strongly support the hybrid court, and urge all sides to live up to their commitments in the peace agreement to create that hybrid court.
QUESTION: And overall, is there U.S. concern about the lack of overall progress with South Sudan’s traditional – transitional government, that the traditional – transitional government has made so far, and if so, is the U.S. at a point where it is considering either cutting back or withholding aid to South Sudan?
MR TONER: Your question, though, is more broadly about – is about the progress for the transitional government.
MR TONER: I think – on the contrary, I think we have seen the first vice president, the president, and vice president – they did make significant progress last week by agreeing to a wide range of steps on security, on – and political disagreements, and that included ending the state of emergency, proceeding with the cantonment provision, as well as releasing prisoners of war, and establishing a technical committee on state boundaries – and these are important steps. Now, they need to be implemented, but they do demonstrate a willingness, I think, to take leadership to keep South Sudan’s transition on track.
QUESTION: Can we go to a different topic?
MR TONER: We can.
QUESTION: Okay, very quickly – very quickly --
QUESTION: Yes, please. Go to China, yeah.
MR TONER: I promise I’ll move up.
MR TONER: I’ll get to everybody.
QUESTION: Sorry. The Japanese Government earlier today reported that Chinese military vessels had entered waters adjacent to the territorial waters of the Senkakus. Do you have any --
MR TONER: I had just seen those media reports. I’d have to refer you to the Government of Japan. Before I walked out, I just saw them, so I don’t have any reaction yet.
Go ahead, Said, then I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: I have a question on China.
MR TONER: Oh, Janne. Sure.
QUESTION: Mark, (inaudible) from the foreign affairs ministry today, there was a comment in regard to the unsafe incident that happened in the East China Sea, where the foreign ministry called for an end to all U.S. reconnaissance flights, and basically blamed Washington for that incident that Pacific Command commented on overnight. There have been a few of these that have happened. Secretary Kerry was really strong when he spoke about it on Sunday. Was the Secretary aware that when he was in Beijing, this had happened?
MR TONER: Was he aware of it? I think we learned about it when he was on the ground, yes, but I believe they might have even been wheels-up when we heard about the – you’re talking about the intercept?
QUESTION: The intercept in the --
MR TONER: Yeah, right. Right.
QUESTION: -- East China Sea that happened on --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- this – yeah.
MR TONER: That’s right. No, I believe we were already wheels-up when – he was already wheels-up when we found out about that.
QUESTION: So it’s not something that came up in his conversations?
MR TONER: No, not specifically, but of course, East China Sea, and also freedom of navigation, all that did come up in a broader context.
QUESTION: But the foreign ministry --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- not their defense ministry – their --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- foreign ministry made this comment today. Can you give us any insight into whether the Secretary had made any headway in his conversation, or what the message was that he conveyed personally, if it was the same one that he conveyed publicly in terms of calling for this kind of action to stop?
MR TONER: Well, I think he obviously discussed a broad range of security issues with Chinese counterparts, but that included South China Sea, they have included our belief that there needs to continue to be a reduction in tensions, and a commitment by all claimants to the South China Sea to legal – mechanisms to address their claims, and that all sides – and that includes China – need to take steps back from escalating the situation, and that was certainly a topic of conversation while he was on the ground in Beijing, and part of that was also our continued commitment to carry out freedom of navigation in the waters of the South China Sea as we do around the world.
QUESTION: Was there any thought that this intercept was deliberate, given the timing?
MR TONER: I was asked that yesterday, and I – honestly, I don’t know. I mean, it --
QUESTION: But the statement overnight from --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- Pacific Command said it was going to be raised diplomat – through diplomatic and military channels.
MR TONER: Right, and it will be. I mean, it has been, and we’ve commented obviously publicly about it. I just am not – I can’t speak to what was in the mind of the Chinese when they carried out this unsafe maneuver.
MR TONER: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Okay, can we go to the Palestinian-Israeli issue?
MR TONER: We can.
QUESTION: The Israeli Government approved construction of 82 housing units in the illegal settlement of Ramat Shlomo. I wonder if you have any comment on that. The Palestinians are saying that this is basically Israel’s response to the Paris conference.
MR TONER: You’re talking about specifically --
QUESTION: I’m talking about specifically Ramat Shlomo, which is in occupied East Jerusalem.
MR TONER: Oh, right. Okay. Well, again, our longstanding positions on these kinds of actions in East Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank is very clear. We view this kind of settlement activity as illegitimate and counterproductive.
QUESTION: But other than, with all due respect, your robotic response always that you --
MR TONER: With all due respect. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: With all due respect, okay – I mean, what are you – okay, I take “robotic” back --
MR TONER: That’s okay, I’m just --
QUESTION: I mean, other than your standard response --
MR TONER: Thought I put a little bit of emotion in it.
QUESTION: -- what else can you do – what can you do to basically sort of leverage your power with the Israelis to back down on these issues?
MR TONER: We talked a little bit about this yesterday and certainly in the aftermath of Paris, and that is – and the Secretary spoke about this before he went to Paris. He still went to Paris because he’s committed to the pursuit of all efforts to bring about a peace process, a legitimate peace process. But we’ve talked about this before, which is that ultimately, as closely as we are allied with Israel, it’s up to Israel, it’s up to the Palestinians to take those steps to create the conditions by which a legitimate peace process can take place. And we are – we can – I mean, part of it – and I recognize that it’s – it is public statements and they are limited in their impact, but part of that is by saying this is not helpful, this kind of activity.
QUESTION: The reason is because there seems to – your statements or your positions seem to go nowhere. You also have now a more emboldened or more blatant calls by – let’s say, by the Israeli minister of agriculture, Uri Ariel, who is saying that we ought to move the Palestinians from Area C and basically annex it. Do you have any comment on that? Because it seems that Israel feels that it can take action with impunity.
MR TONER: Well, I mean, I’m not going to – I’m going to resist the temptation to respond to every comment from Israeli officials, but for a member of the Israeli cabinet to say what Minister Ariel said is concerning. It’s – I just say we continue to look to steps, rhetoric, comments, actions that we believe will set the conditions for a peace process to take hold and to avoid inflammatory and provocative rhetoric.
MR TONER: I’ve seen the reports. I’d have to refer you to the governments of Italy and Portugal. I don’t have any comment.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- there’s been nearly 500 suicide attacks this year, 119 in May alone. Is this what progress looks like?
MR TONER: Look, I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about this, frankly, in light of – there was a spate of suicide attacks specifically in Baghdad I guess a month or so ago. And they were horrific and they killed a lot of civilians – innocent civilians – as they often do. And I think what we said at the time still holds to an extent, and even President Obama spoke about this when he was talking – I think he was referring to the attacks in Paris – when he said that when you’ve got a few individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves and have access to bombing – bomb material or weaponry, they’re going to be able to carry out some pretty horrific attacks.
What it means on a larger scale is that we all need to be vigilant. We need to cut off the recruitment techniques that allows these people to be, again, recruited and convinced that this is a viable means of expression, which it isn’t. As much as we have degraded Daesh on the battlefield over these past months – and we have; we’ve put pressure on them – significant pressure on them. But they are, as many terrorist organizations are, still able to carry out these kinds of attacks and cause suffering. And that’s just, again, something, as I said – others – as I said, the President and others have spoken about this. They only have to be right once, or successful once, I guess. And we, the Western world, we have to be successful 100 percent of the time.
So it does speak to, more broadly, to the fact that we need to continue to work on countering violent extremism and those kinds of efforts, even though it’s the less – how do I put this – it’s not an area we talk about. We always talk about battlefield successes and our work with the Syrian defense forces and all of that. But this kind of – I don’t want to say “softer” because that’s not the right way to put it, but that kind of engagement also is really important because, as I said, we have to be proficient in that sphere where we’re cutting off the ability for groups like ISIL to recruit suicide bombers.
QUESTION: Is it just the Western world?
MR TONER: Please. No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that. Obviously, places like Iraq and other places in the Middle East and certainly in South Central Asia have been – and Asia – I mean, we can go around the world, unfortunately.
QUESTION: Have you been able to establish whether the latest attacks in Jordan in the refugee camp were actually done by ISIS?
MR TONER: You’re talking about --
QUESTION: Are you – yeah, a --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: A couple of days ago, there was an attack --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- on the intelligence office for – Jordanian intelligence office and a Palestinian refugee --
MR TONER: Yeah, no, we – we haven’t gotten any – obviously, the Jordanian Government is investigating that incident. I don’t have any more details, but we certainly condemn the attack and we offer our heartfelt condolences to the victims, but we don’t have any more additional details.
MR TONER: It’s late in the briefing to ask a question like that.
QUESTION: -- that federal agencies do not talk about presidential politics or the election.
MR TONER: Time-honored, yes.
QUESTION: But it’s been a long time since a secretary of state ran for president or was a nominee of their party to be president. And I’m wondering if, in this case, you might make an exception to the general rule, because one candidate has made it very clear that he is going to criticize the other candidate’s performance as – in running this building, and foreign policy and diplomacy a very big issue.
Last night, Candidate Trump said that Hillary Clinton turned the State Department into her private hedge fund; the Russians, the Saudis, the Chinese all gave money and got favorable treatment in return to the – gave money to the foundation; for favorable treatment in return.
This is – this has directly to do with the State Department and I’m wondering if you would like to respond.
MR TONER: I’m going to resist the temptation, and first of all, these are – this is a political campaign, it’s an election, there are now – well, almost two candidates, and they’re going to debate a lot of issues and they’re going to debate each other’s records. And that works both ways, and so I will leave it to them and their respective campaign staff to raise and discuss these issues.
Now, as specific allegations are made that we can provide guidance on, I’ll speak to them. I don’t have a ready comeback to that allegation, because frankly, it’s so broad and outlandish that it’s hard to --
QUESTION: Okay, so – but we can expect, then, if there are specific allegations made --
MR TONER: We’ll do our best.
QUESTION: -- about the conduct of the State Department --
MR TONER: We’ll do our best to speak to our record as the State Department, yes.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Related, have you heard that the Secretary of State, Secretary Kerry, basically endorsed Secretary Clinton on his flight? Or he told journalists that (inaudible) --
MR TONER: I know – he did speak on the record about the fact that she has crossed the threshold --
QUESTION: Or make a great president or --
MR TONER: -- and spoke about the historic significance, and he also spoke in his comments, no matter where you lie on the political spectrum, you have to acknowledge that this is a significant event. And as the father of four daughters, I also acknowledge this is a significant event in our political history.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: Thank you, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:05 p.m.)