Daily Press Briefing - August 17, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:07 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey folks. Happy Wednesday.
MR TONER: It is Wednesday, right?
QUESTION: It’s happy, too.
MR TONER: Yes, I’ve – anyway. Welcome to the State Department. I don’t have anything at the top, so Brad?
QUESTION: Could we start off – yesterday you said that the call between the Secretary and the Russian foreign minister was – had just briefly ended and you didn’t have a full readout. Do you have a more complete readout today?
MR TONER: I mean, I guess – thanks for the question. So the call did take place yesterday. I mean, the focus was on – not surprisingly – how do we get past the current challenges in our efforts with Russia to coordinate on a credible nationwide ceasefire, access to humanitarian assistance, and getting the Geneva talks back up and running. So we’ve been very clear about not getting too much into the details of what those remaining challenges are. The Secretary has addressed this before in – as have we, myself and John. But that was really the focus of the conversation was there – we continue to talk with Russia, we continue to work through some of the issues that we have, some of our concerns. And indeed, they have concerns as well that they can speak to or not. But that was the focus of the conversation.
QUESTION: Yesterday you guys were a bit befuddled by the --
MR TONER: A bit --
QUESTION: -- befuddled --
MR TONER: Befuddled.
QUESTION: Or confused by the Russian decision to start undertaking missions from Iran. Did you get clarity from that telephone call with Foreign Minister Lavrov about the intent and the purpose of the – these missions?
MR TONER: Well, I mean – sorry, I didn’t mean cut you off there.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
MR TONER: I think – I mean, it was raised. I’m not going to necessarily get into the details of what Foreign Minister Lavrov said about it. But you’ve seen public remarks by Russia as to why they’re pursuing this agreement or this arrangement with Iran. Yesterday we said, we’re looking for – or we’re looking at it, we’re trying to get a better assessment of what’s going on. But I stand by what I said yesterday, which is that fundamentally this isn’t helpful. And it’s not helpful because it continues to complicate what is already a very dangerous situation in and around Aleppo when you have Russia using Iranian air bases as a way to carry out more intensive bombing runs that are hitting, continue to hit, civilian populations. And so our concerns remain very vivid, and we’re trying to remain focused on – specifically with Aleppo, but on a broader scale trying to get a cessation of hostilities back in place in Syria, and this doesn’t help it.
But more broadly, Brad, this is not – we understand the importance and the significance of them using Iranian air bases. But Iran – or rather, Russia has been doing this kind of – or have been carrying out these kinds of airstrikes for months now. So that element of it is not new. The fact of the matter is it’s only exacerbating what is already a very dangerous situation.
QUESTION: Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke directly to you, Mr. Deputy Spokesman Toner, about your comment yesterday that this use of Iranian – of an Iranian air base may have violated the UNSCR 2231. What is your view now that you guys have had another day of assessment?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, let me first just qualify by it’s not my view. We have lawyers who are looking at it and trying to assess it, and they continue to do so. We don’t – I don’t have a definitive assessment. I think they’re looking at it.
But regardless, just to focus on process, I mean, for the Security Council to determine whether an action is a violation of one of its sanctions, it would need to, I think, agree to some kind of language determining that a violation has occurred. And all of – any of that language, Russia would have a chance to make its case that it’s not. I mean, we know how the Security Council works. So regardless of --
QUESTION: But here has – yeah.
MR TONER: -- whether we or other members of the Security Council, the Permanent Five members, raise concerns or raise concerns that this might be a violation, Russia will have ample opportunity to make its case that it’s not.
QUESTION: That has no bearing on whether you consider it a --
MR TONER: Agree, agree.
QUESTION: When there’s been many cases --
MR TONER: I agree with that.
QUESTION: -- with only at Iran with ballistic missiles, where you insist that it is your view that it is a violation.
MR TONER: I agree. I’m just saying that --
QUESTION: Do you – in this case, do you view it as a --
MR TONER: We just haven’t reached that assessment yet.
QUESTION: Okay. I just have one or two more on this.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead, Brad.
QUESTION: On Syria.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The secretary-general of the UN warned that Aleppo could become a catastrophe. I think he’s used this language a lot of times before, but regardless, he called specifically on the U.S. and Russia to agree on the ceasefire as soon as possible. What’s the holdup?
MR TONER: Well, we want to get there, but that doesn’t mean conceding to a bad arrangement. We have certain issues that we want resolved before we can enter into that kind of coordination mechanism with Russia. We’ve been very clear about that. We believe we can get there and we continue to work at it. But to speak to the UN secretary-general’s comments, you’re right; he said it before and we’ve said it before; we need full humanitarian access immediately, yesterday, two days ago, a week ago, and we don’t have it. What we have seen are half-steps and half-measures by Russia, opening three-hour corridors or three-hour windows where humanitarian assistance can be delivered that frankly the UN has said doesn’t work. So we are equally alarmed by the worsening situation in Aleppo. I don’t think anybody cannot be. And we need to and we want to get to a place where we can get the violence in and around Aleppo to cease.
QUESTION: My very last one.
MR TONER: Please. Yeah, go ahead, Brad.
QUESTION: Are you open to a ceasefire with Russia that doesn’t include all this stuff about military coordination, military partnership?
MR TONER: Well, that’s a --
QUESTION: People will die in the meantime if you keep negotiating.
MR TONER: No, I understand what you’re saying. I think I understand what you’re saying. I think, I mean we’ve done this before where we’ve looked at pauses or whatever we – however they’re referred to or characterized as. I think that’s always on the table if we can get some kind of preliminary pause before we reach a broader agreement or a way forward on coordinating, of course, we’d pursue that.
QUESTION: Mark, just a quick follow-up on this.
MR TONER: I’ll get you next.
QUESTION: How is this bombardment from the base in Iran violates 2231? How does it violate it? In what sense?
MR TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to get into --
QUESTION: My understanding is that --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- is that that involves deliveries of arms to Iran, or weapons and so on.
MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, it’s a bit more nuanced and complicated than that.
MR TONER: And I understand your – I don’t have the language in front of me, but it’s a bit more nuanced and complicated. It involves sometimes allowing certain weaponry or – to be used or housed in Iran. Again, I don’t have the language in front of me, but it’s very nuanced and it’s very complex, which is why I just told Brad we’re looking at it, we’re assessing it, and we’re assessing whether this would constitute a violation. And if we do so, then there’s a process in place that we would take it to the UN Security Council, and then that process would play itself out where every member of the UN Security Council would be able to weigh in whether they agree with that or not. So we’re just not there yet.
QUESTION: So, but as long as it is not in Iranian hands or Iranian possession, it is not a violation, is it?
MR TONER: I’m sorry, one more time the question?
QUESTION: My question is: As long as the Russians obviously control all these airplanes and they probably control the area from which they bomb and so on, as long as it is not in Iranian hands, is it a violation? I’m trying to understand.
MR TONER: Yeah. No, and I agree. As I said, I just don’t have – I think that’s what we’re looking at right now and our lawyers are looking at it. We haven’t made an assessment. We’re looking at it. And it does require a very detailed legal analysis whether there was a violation. And again, it’s not just – as I understand it, it’s not just supplying the Iranians certain weapons or certain offensive weaponry. It’s more complex than that whether you’re using it – I can get you the language. I mean, you have it in front of you, no doubt. But --
QUESTION: And my last question is: Why do you think, in your view or your assessment, why do the Russians – why are they using an Iranian base when, in fact, they have Khmeimim that is housing many airplanes and they can bomb from there? Is there a political message, really a solidification of this --
MR TONER: No, and there’s – sure.
QUESTION: -- Iranian-Russian alliance?
MR TONER: The short answer, Said, is I don’t know and we don’t know. The – we’ve seen Russian politicians and officials say that this is part of a cost-saving measure that allows them to move closer to the attack. That’s really for them to try to characterize what their intentions are here. Again, I would just go back to what I said in response to Brad’s question. The Russians have been using their bases in Syria to carry out similar attacks for months now. And so while I don’t want to in any way underplay the significance of them using Iranian air bases as they are, I would just – I think it’s important to remember that they’ve been carrying out similar airstrikes that have purported to target Daesh and ISIL, but in a large number of cases hit indiscriminately civilian targets, civilian – civilians themselves, as well as – we talked about yesterday – moderate Syrian opposition groups, all of which only complicates and exacerbates an already difficult situation and leaves us nowhere closer to what we need to get in place in Syria.
QUESTION: On this question?
QUESTION: Well, I --
MR TONER: I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: I have one quick one on that.
MR TONER: Yeah --
QUESTION: Just following up on --
MR TONER: Get it out of the way then. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: -- what Brad was asking yesterday --
MR TONER: Sure, yeah.
QUESTION: -- is have you considered any further how this arrangement – Russian arrangement with Iran will affect any potential military cooperation with Russia? I mean, is this something you can truly engage in if they are in fact cooperating with Iran at such a level?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, again, I would just pivot back to what I said before, which is that – so Russia and Iran are both members of the ISSG, this International Syria Support Group. They’re also – and it’s no surprise to anyone; we’ve all known that they’ve been longtime supporters of Assad and the regime. Heck, Iran’s been active on the ground, troops on the ground, in Iran – in Syria, rather – for a long time. So again, I don’t want to --
QUESTION: So for all those reasons, why would you cooperate with Russia militarily?
MR TONER: Well, I think, again, part of the operating assumption with the ISSG is that you bring all the quote/unquote “stakeholders” with regard to Syria in the same room and you try to reach a consensus on a way forward. Everyone who has signed up to the ISSG has at least claimed to support a political solution and a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria. Now, every – now, many of the countries who sit on the ISSG have their own motives and their own positions on the way to get there, but that’s part of what we’re trying to do here through diplomacy is reach consensus and then move forward with that. That’s all we can do right now; that’s the mechanism we have in front of us. And so ultimately, and we’ve talked about this, if Iran and Russia continually prove – or continually – continue, rather, to disregard those efforts, then I think at some point we have to reach a different assessment. But at this point we’re not ready to go there yet.
QUESTION: Mark, on this issue.
MR TONER: Please, Michel.
QUESTION: Russian military spokesperson has said today – or has asked the State Department to check the content of UN Resolution 2231. And he said, “We suggest the representative of – the representatives of the State Department get out their pencils and trace the lines on the map to discover the fact that Syria is a separate sovereign state.” Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: I saw the quote, actually, and I would just – for the record, I would remind them that my name is Mark Toner, not Michael Toner. (Laughter.) Maybe it was just a bad translation. I don’t know. If what you’re asking me, Michel, is whether we have – what specifically is the question for us to answer is whether we – what --
QUESTION: Both to check the content of the UN Resolution 2231 and then that Syria is a separate sovereign country.
MR TONER: Well, I think the assertion is – and I hate to parse a Russian official’s language, but I think the assertion there is that we’re somehow carrying out military strikes in a sovereign nation, that we don’t have its approval. Is that the point? Because if that’s so, we’ve been very clear that we believe that we have the authorization – the legal authority, rather – to use military force against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria.
QUESTION: I think he means that Russia didn’t break the UN Resolution 2231.
MR TONER: I think he made – I think he was making two points with that. And look, I mean, with regard to the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, we’re assessing it. It’s very complicated. It is not clear-cut in the sense of they’re not – that it prohibits providing Iran with offensive weaponry. It has gradations, if you will, on what you can or cannot do with regard to providing or giving Iran offensive capabilities. And so we’re looking at it and we’re trying to make a sober assessment of whether this constitutes, in our view, a violation. We’re not there yet. So I would just ask everyone to be patient, and once we do reach an assessment of whether it is or isn’t, then we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: And what about the other point – Syria as a sovereign country? Do you use your pencils --
MR TONER: Well, that’s – I was trying to answer that. I said we’ve been through this before where the accusation is that we’re somehow operating outside the bounds of international law. We disagree. We are operating both in our own national security interests but also in the region’s security interest in trying to carry out strikes against Daesh and against ISIL. Frankly, the regime thus far has been incapable of going after and handling this threat to their own national security thus far. And in fact, we’ve seen the regime, as much as they purport to be full-throatedly and wholeheartedly going after ISIL and Daesh, we’ve seen that they collaborate when it’s in their interest to do so.
QUESTION: My last question --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: -- on Syria. Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani has denied today reports that Iran has made a military base available for the Russian forces, and he said that Iran has not made any base available for the Russians. The Russians have confirmed the use of Iran military base – air base. Who should we believe?
MR TONER: Honestly, Michel, that’s for the – that’s for them to work out between themselves. If there’s confusion or a disconnect there, we certainly wouldn’t speak to it.
QUESTION: But do you have any confirmation that the Russians are using military air bases in Iran?
MR TONER: I mean, we’ve talked about our assessment, and they’ve through the memorandum of understanding asked – as we talked about yesterday, asked for us – for overflight for Iraq. I’m not going to get into any more details that we might have that they are using Iranian air bases, but they have spoken to it. They have confirmed that they are doing so. The Iranians seem to differ, but I can’t make that determination here.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Abigail.
QUESTION: Do you have any response to the Iraqi prime minister granting permission to Russia to allow to fly over Iraqi airspace? You had, I believe, mentioned yesterday – expressed concerns --
MR TONER: Yeah, I did, and I mean – look, we’ve – we’re in constant contact and dialogue with the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi leadership, but ultimately they’re a sovereign country and they make their own decisions, and I wouldn’t attempt to speak to that.
QUESTION: On Iraq?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: So Prime Minister Abadi has said a few things, like about the operation in Mosul. One, he seems to be concerned that the Peshmerga might take more territory from Mosul. He says the Peshmerga, quote/unquote, “shouldn’t pursue” ambitionist expansion – “expansionist ambitions.” What do you make of that?
MR TONER: Well, I would just say that we engage regularly with Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad to advocate and encourage a unified front in the face of the continuing threat of Daesh or ISIL, and in fact, we hold and have held joint planning sessions between the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional President Barzani and the national security advisor for the Government of Iraq, and I think one took place last week. It was the second, I believe, of these meetings, and the intent here of those meetings is to try to build that kind of partnership and to work through some of the challenges as Iraqi forces writ large look towards the liberation of Mosul.
QUESTION: He has also said that, “No force” – I’m quoting him – “other than the ISF is allowed to enter Mosul city,” meaning that the Peshmerga is not allowed to enter Mosul city. Is that the understanding the United States has, that the Kurds shouldn’t be allowed to enter the city?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think that there just needs to be closer coordination between – and we’ve encouraged that and, indeed, it has taken place. Thus far, there have been these meetings as they look towards Mosul, and frankly, the next steps in liberating Iraq from ISIL. I think it’s absolutely important, and we’ve emphasized this all along, that the Peshmerga and all the various fighting groups in Iraq need to be under the command and control of the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi military. That’s been our assessment all along. There needs to be that coordination mechanism. But we certainly recognize, and we’ve said so many times, the vital role that these groups, including the Peshmerga, play and have played thus far and showed tremendous courage in liberating parts of Iraq that have been under the control of ISIL.
So I think what we’re talking about is better coordination, better communication between the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi Government, military.
QUESTION: But are you expecting to achieve that better coordination, better understanding --
MR TONER: We think we’re on the road there, yes.
QUESTION: -- before the actual operation begins on the city?
MR TONER: We – as I said, we’ve had this – these two joint meetings. We expect that coordination to continue, and through that mechanism we hope to address all these issues.
QUESTION: But on Russia, the question arose yesterday about whether Moscow intended a longer-term presence in Iran, and we discussed that and you didn’t quite – uncertain. And what I understand since is that Hamadan Air Base has been enhanced and expanded specifically for Russian use, including building four long-range – long runways for the Russian bombers. That, of course, took some months and speaks to planning for a significant longer-term presence.
So a series of questions. One, is that your view? And two, in yesterday’s raids, what did Russia attack? Did it attack Daesh targets or did it attack the civilians and moderate rebels, as the U.S. has complained before?
MR TONER: So in response to the first question, which I think is what’s Russia’s long-term plans with Iran or whether we have – whether this was a long-term planned operation, I’m not sure.
QUESTION: Well, do you have more – I have more information, so maybe you do as well, that the Hamadan Air Base, which Russia is using in Iran, was expanded and developed specifically for the use of these Tu-22 bombers, and that work – the enhancement and development, including the longer runways – speaks to an intent for some longer-term presence and not simply an occasional flight out of that air base. Is that your view as well?
MR TONER: Again, I wouldn’t necessarily respond to that. I don’t have that level of detail, frankly, but I think that’s a question for the Russians and the Iranians to answer.
Now, your second question was what was hit yesterday. I think I spoke to this yesterday, but I’ll repeat that, as per usual, there were ISIL targets hit, but as per usual, there were also civilian targets and also opposition – moderate opposition targets also hit. And again, that is indicative of a pattern that we’ve seen.
QUESTION: Can you say which was targeted more?
MR TONER: I can’t. I don’t have that kind of breakdown.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: Are we done with Syria or the region?
MR TONER: Let’s finish and I’ll get to you. I promise. Yeah, please.
Go ahead in the back – Turkey? Wait, I’m sorry.
MR TONER: Where are we? Are we done with Syria?
QUESTION: Yes, Syria.
MR TONER: Syria?
MR TONER: One more Syria, then Turkey, and then Afghanistan.
QUESTION: The head of Kurdish National Council in Syria, Ibrahim Biro, was kidnapped last weekend by the PYD forces. And later on --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- he was forced to leave the country, and now he’s in Iraq. I was wondering if you are following the case.
MR TONER: I don’t. I’m aware of reports of the case. I just don’t have any more detail for you. I apologize.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. Just yesterday, Ozgur Gundem newspaper – a pro-Kurdish newspaper – building was sealed and the newspaper is shut down. And about 14 journalists, maybe more, detained just yesterday, so it’s almost 100 journalists right now in Turkey sitting in the jails, and there are dozens of others also on detainment lists. I was wondering if you have any comments on this.
MR TONER: Well, I mean, I think we are always concerned, and we’ve been very clear about that, whenever we see an independent media outlet shut down. I think that we would encourage Turkey, as it takes these kind of steps in the security realm, to be mindful of the impact that that kind of action would have on its democratic institutions, one of which is a free and independent media.
QUESTION: There’s fighting going on between different factions of the Taliban after a U.S. drone strike killed Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour in May. Two factions emerged, one more hardline than the other. We’re now learning that the Taliban cracked further and a third splinter group emerged. How does this affect reconciliation prospects, if that is still the goal?
MR TONER: Well, I think it is, and we’ve said all along that this needs to be an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process. I mean, any time you’ve got various splinter groups emerging, that does make those efforts more complex, but that remains our overarching goal and what we view as really the long-term solution for Afghanistan to achieve peace and stability. But I don’t have an assessment of what the latest development might mean for prospects, but we continue to encourage those efforts.
I think that, that said, it has been a difficult fighting season in Afghanistan, and we’ve seen Afghans’ security forces thus far meet the challenge. But it’s also important to remember that they’re still under threat, there’s still a high level of violence, and that a large number of Taliban groups and factions continue to press the fight, and we need to continue our support to the Afghan military.
QUESTION: Why do you think the fractioning is going to make it more complex – reconciliation --
MR TONER: Well, again, I’m just – I mean, we can all provide our armchair assessment, but any time you’ve got a splintering of a group, then it’s harder to get consensus.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Afghanistan?
QUESTION: Do you hope – I have two more. I have two more.
MR TONER: Please, go ahead. Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you hope as different Taliban factions fight each other, Taliban as a whole will get weaker?
MR TONER: Again, I think, frankly, our – I mean, anything that would weaken their ability to cause harm to innocent Afghan civilians we would welcome, but I think what our preference would be would be that these various – or some in the Taliban leadership would recognize that there is no long-term military solution to what they’re pursuing in Afghanistan, would lay down their arms; would adopt the constitution, accept it, and agree to sit down, as I said, in – as part of an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process.
QUESTION: One more.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that ISIL may be taking advantage of the fractioning among the Taliban? Earlier this August, an Afghan general said over the past two months the Taliban had stopped fighting ISIL. Afghan officials are worried that the Taliban might be forging an informal alliance with ISIL in eastern Afghanistan. What is your assessment?
MR TONER: Well, I think our assessment is that we continue to see – we’ve talked about affiliates, different groups affiliating themselves with ISIL. But we’ve continued to see an effort on the part of ISIL – we’ve seen it in Libya and elsewhere, frankly – for it to expand or to reach out its tendrils, if you will, into different places that are ungoverned spaces, and certainly that’s true for Afghanistan. So we’re monitoring the presence of ISIL-affiliated groups very closely in Afghanistan. We’re actively engaged with the Government of Afghanistan and our partners in the region to prevent that from taking place. We don’t want to see them gain safe haven or material support from the Taliban or anyone.
QUESTION: One more follow.
QUESTION: Can I continue on Afghanistan?
MR TONER: Yeah, let’s do Goyal and then you. I’m sorry, Lalit.
QUESTION: Mark, the innocent people are the victims of these terrorists – terrorism in Afghanistan – and what they are asking now after so many years, they have not seen or had a good night’s sleep because of these terrorist activities. What they are asking from the United States and international community: when there will be a light in the darkness in their life, when they will have a good night’s sleep? And what’s the message for those innocent people?
MR TONER: Well, look --
QUESTION: I mean, what is the future of Afghanistan as far as they --
MR TONER: Well, we’re trying to – so let me just say the United States has made a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, and we’re going to help Afghanistan build a more stable, peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future. We have sacrificed in both blood and treasure to make that happen, and we’re going to continue to fulfill that commitment. And we stand firmly behind the democratically elected government. We commend President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah on the progress they’ve made in 18 months into a five-year term, but we want to continue to build on that progress. We want to work to increase the capability of Afghan Security Forces to provide for the security of the Afghan people, but it is a long, difficult road. But we’re certainly not going to abandon it.
QUESTION: One more, just a general question.
MR TONER: Please, Lalit.
QUESTION: General question. And that is that dozens of nations are fighting against these terrorists at ISIL, Taliban, or ISIS and all, among others. My question is have you – and they have no bases, they have no – they are not nations or countries. Have you reached those who are financing them and arming them, because we are – without financing or arming, they cannot fight against the innocent people.
MR TONER: It’s absolutely a challenge. We’ve seen it most recently with Daesh or ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Terrorist financing is a huge piece of solving the overall challenge of terrorism, because as you note, they need to have access to funds in order to operate. We have focused on that and we have made, frankly, great strides in choking off ISIL’s access to those funds. We did similarly well in cutting off al-Qaida’s access to funds, but it remains a challenge.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
QUESTION: The unity government – the differences of the unity government now has come out in the open. To what extent this is affecting the war against Taliban in Afghanistan?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, look – you’re talking about Afghanistan, of course. We’ve seen Chief Executive Abdullah’s public remarks regarding President Ghani and the Government of National Unity, which is what I think you’re referring to. We remain supportive, as I just said, of a government of national unity. We encourage the president – both President Ghani, rather, and Chief Executive Abdullah to work together to pursue common goals, which is a prosperous, stable Afghanistan. We regularly consult with both of them, President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, and their key advisors as we work – as they work, rather, to implement what is a very difficult and ambitious domestic reform agenda. And we’re going to continue that support.
QUESTION: The unity government you know was formed as a result of Secretary Kerry’s trips to Afghanistan and his negotiations with these two leaders. Is he worried about such issue coming up two – nearly two years after the formation of the government, and he is making any effort to reach out to these two leaders?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, as I just said, we remain in very close touch with both leaders, both through our embassy but also from Washington as well. I think our assessment is, as I just said, that they’ve got significant challenges facing them, but we stand by and ready to support them as they work through these challenges. We want to see them implement, as I said, a – what is an ambitious reform agenda. But we continue to consult with them, their advisors, and we believe that they understand the importance of them working together rather separately – than separately.
QUESTION: North Korea?
MR TONER: North Korea.
QUESTION: Can I ask just one more on --
MR TONER: Let’s close out Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Just again, how concerned are you about ISIL taking advantage of fractured Taliban?
MR TONER: Well, I think I answered this. I mean, look, we’re always looking at ISIL’s ability to find safe haven and then expand to work with, as I said, these affiliate groups, factions of groups such as the Taliban that they might be able to exploit. And we’re monitoring it very closely. We’re in close contact and coordination with the Afghan Security Forces in that regard, and we’re going to continue. As we’ve said before, if we see opportunities to take out key leadership, we’re going to strike.
QUESTION: Well, just --
MR TONER: No. Come on, please.
QUESTION: Just one more. I’m sorry. When after the killing of the Taliban leader Mansour, President Obama said it was an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you still think of it as a milestone with – did you – I’m sorry. Did you expect the fracturing of the Taliban with the removal of the leader? What did you expect to happen?
MR TONER: I think we said at the time and what I would still contend is that it was (a) a strike to take out the leader of an organization that was intent on carrying out acts of terror on both the Afghan people and, frankly, international forces that were resident in Afghanistan, and we took that opportunity. But we also took that opportunity to send a clear message that the Taliban needs to recognize that it has no future in fighting and that it should seek talks with the Afghan Government. As I said, Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process it has to be, but I think those are the – were the goals of that – carrying out that strike, and we stand by them.
QUESTION: North Korea’s atomic energy agency in a written response to the Kyodo News Service confirmed what the Intelligence Community and the IAEA have been indicating, that there’s been a resumption of plutonium reprocessing at the Yongbyon facility. In their comment they also hinted at a coming fifth nuclear test, while the foreign ministry in Pyongyang today issued fresh threats against U.S. bases in the Pacific. Sanctions don’t appear to be deterring the North Koreans. What is the United States contemplating to try to mitigate North Korean behavior in violation of all these UN sanctions?
MR TONER: Well, we’re certainly aware of the reports regarding resumed plutonium production. If these reports are correct, it is obviously a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions which prohibit such activities.
I would say these actions only serve to increase the international community’s resolve to continue to counter the DPRK’s, North Korea’s prohibited activities. And that, as you noted, continue – or includes implementing existing UN Security Council sanctions. Our commitment to the defense of our allies in the region – and that includes the Republic of Korea as well as Japan – remains ironclad. We also remain prepared to defend ourselves as well as our allies. And we call on North Korea once again to refrain from actions that only raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps that will fulfill its international obligations.
As to next steps or additional steps we might take, I don’t have anything to preview right now. We continue to evaluate our options. But again, our focus has been thus far on getting these hard-hitting sanctions that we managed to get passed through the UN Security Council fully implemented, and that involves working with our regional partners to implement those sanctions to the fullest extent.
QUESTION: Related to that. Any comment on the North Korean diplomat who has defected to South Korea?
MR TONER: I don’t really have any comment specifically to the case. I mean, we obviously urge all countries to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers within their territories. We remain deeply concerned about the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, and we’re going to continue to work with countries – other countries, rather, and international organizations – that includes the UN Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – to protect North Koreans, North Korean refugees, as well as finding long-term solutions for their plight.
QUESTION: I have a question --
QUESTION: A different topic?
MR TONER: Okay, I’ll get --
QUESTION: Yeah, one more on North Korea.
MR TONER: Okay, I’ll get to you. One. Okay.
QUESTION: And you said that this is intelligence information, but do you have any information on the North Korea preparing for the fifth nuclear test?
MR TONER: I don’t have any information to share with you on that specific threat. We’ve – except to say that we’ve seen a pattern, obviously, over the past six months or so that is deeply concerning. We’ve taken steps to try to address that. We can – we’re going to continue to evaluate our options going forward.
MR TONER: Sure. Go ahead, sorry.
QUESTION: What is the State Department’s policy on this technology?
MR TONER: I have an answer. So thanks for bringing that up because I did – as I did promise yesterday, we did look into those two issues. So we did – we did have internal discussions, and I can say that State Department officials do not recall any discussions about the feasibility of then-Secretary Clinton potentially using a wireless earpiece or Bluetooth-enabled device within the confines of Mahogany Row or the seventh floor. And in answer to your second question – or maybe it was your first, I apologize – but given the potential security vulnerabilities of that type of technology, the department would not and does not approve of the use of such devices in a secure space.
QUESTION: Was she --
QUESTION: Was she asked? Was she – so she asked or you --
MR TONER: We said we don’t recall any --
QUESTION: You don’t recall her asking?
MR TONER: There was no discussions of it. I – that – sorry, that was a roundabout way of saying we don’t – there was no discussions about it, it was not raised.
QUESTION: But was she doing it?
QUESTION: Seventh floor --
MR TONER: I don’t believe so. I mean, I think we said that – frankly, I don’t have a direct answer to that. I mean, I don’t think she was. I mean, we don’t – as I said, what we were asked about was whether we had pursued any request to use that kind of technology, and no one recalls that ever being raised. And in fact, we would not allow it. So the answer to it – the answer to that is no.
QUESTION: Can – do you have more on this?
QUESTION: No, go ahead.
QUESTION: I was going to ask about --
QUESTION: I just want to know if you – your answer, you referenced seventh floor, Mahogany Row. Neither yesterday or today’s question mentioned that. Is that a blanket statement, period, this was never discussed, or was never discussed with reference to the seventh floor?
MR TONER: I was only talking about – so it’s secure spaces. And what I was talking about – I’m sorry if I was unclear about that. Mahogany Row is a secure space. That’s what I was trying to – not necessarily the whole seventh floor, but --
QUESTION: So it was just never discussed?
MR TONER: Never discussed.
QUESTION: Can I --
MR TONER: That’s according to our – again, we did ask all the people who were – would have been knowledgeable of this.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about Rio. There are two – the American swimmers there have come – run into some problems with this report from Ryan Lochte about a robbery, and that’s obviously been drawn into question. And now a judge in Rio has ordered that passports be seized and that Ryan and another swimmer – at least one other swimmer, the judge said, cannot leave the country. We know that Ryan has already left the country, but the three other swimmers who were with him that night we don’t believe have. We’re not sure.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: What is going on? Is there some sort of international incident boiling up here? What is going on? What are you hearing from your Brazilian counterparts?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, unfortunately, we don’t have Privacy Act waivers for any of these individuals who were involved in this incident. We’ve all seen the media reports, as you note, that a Brazilian court has issued an order to seize the passports of several U.S. athletes who were involved in this incident the other day. I have to refer you to the parties involved for further information because we don’t have a Privacy Act waiver.
I would note more broadly, though, that we encourage all parties to work with Brazilian law enforcement in their investigation of the incident, but I’d refer you to those Brazilian authorities for any more information about the case.
QUESTION: Does that mean you would – I mean, this might be far-fetched, but would you want Ryan Lochte to go back to Rio, then, if you’re encouraging him to work with Brazilian authorities?
MR TONER: I mean, ultimately, that’s all for an American citizen – we would never, obviously, require any American citizen to comply with those kinds of requests. I think I’ll stay where I was, which is that we would urge or we would like to see and encourage American citizens to do what they can to work with Brazilian authorities to close out this investigation.
QUESTION: And are you working – can you say if the State Department is consulting with --
MR TONER: I can’t, apologize. I just can’t.
QUESTION: Can I move on very quickly to the Palestinian --
QUESTION: I have one more about --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead. We’ll close this out. Please.
QUESTION: Being that you’re encouraging U.S. citizens to work with law enforcement in Brazil, is there any concern about the way U.S. citizens are being handled during the course of the Olympic Games by the Brazilian Government or by the Brazilian law enforcement?
MR TONER: I mean, we’ve talked a lot in the run-up to the games about providing, through a range of sources, information to the multitude of Americans who are on the ground right now in Rio and in Brazil. Thus far I’m not aware of any pattern of any kind of harassment or anything at all, frankly, in terms of crime. I’d have to, obviously, consult with our embassy in Rio – in Brazil, rather, to get more information about that. But thus far I don’t think we’ve seen any concerns whatsoever about the security situation other than that there have been several incidents, of which this is one, that have been reported. But I think at any event on the scale of the Olympics with the number of visiting tourists who are taking part in that event. That’s always something that’s a matter of concern. We always urge American travelers to be mindful of security surrounding a big event, whether it’s the Olympics or whatever event that takes place around the world.
QUESTION: And to respect the laws and rules --
MR TONER: And, of course, to respect the laws and rules of the government of the country in which they are.
QUESTION: Can I --
MR TONER: Said, I’ve already been to you, so I’ll get back to you, I promise, and then we’ll do emails.
QUESTION: So you mentioned yesterday that you were working to come up with a production schedule; you might present the production schedule on the email in an August 22nd court date. Do you have anything further on that --
MR TONER: I don’t.
QUESTION: -- and whether you have a production schedule or whether it would be in the public interest to at least produce these emails before Election Day?
MR TONER: I don’t have any – as I said, we’ll – we’re looking at it. We’re assessing the number and how we might share them. I think I confirmed yesterday that we would obviously hand them over to Judicial Watch – any of the emails in addition that were received or sent by Secretary Clinton in her official capacity as secretary of state which were contained in the material that was handed over to us by the FBI – but I don’t have any additional details to provide on how that production schedule would take place.
QUESTION: But are you looking at Election Day as a deadline? I mean, do you think that would be in the public interest, to have these emails out there before then?
MR TONER: Frankly, and having dealt with the tremendous amount of emails that we had to deal with in responding to the previous FOIA request – some 55,000 – it’s always been – our goal is to work through as quickly and as expeditiously as possible but mindful of the fact that we need to work to address interagency concerns and possible classification upgrades; that we’re always working to produce these documents as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: Mark, in assessing the number --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- as you put it, does that mean you’ve counted how many there are, and can you share that?
MR TONER: I don’t have a firm number for you.
QUESTION: You can’t tell us --
MR TONER: I’m sorry, I don’t.
MR TONER: We’ll see if we have – we can get that for you, okay?
QUESTION: Yeah, or how many pages of emails. Comey described it as several thousand. Is that what you assessed?
MR TONER: So I don’t want to give a wrong number. I’ll get back to you on that, promise.
QUESTION: You got a number there, though.
MR TONER: No, I don’t.
MR TONER: You can come up.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: I’m always seeking to answer your questions, Justin, trust me.
MR TONER: Please. Okay.
QUESTION: Today, the Israeli radio said that the prime minister’s office – Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office – was getting ready or preparing some sort of response for an equivalent or ultimately some sort of a suggestion by the President of the United States on the two-state solution that may come up at the Security Council. Do you have any – first of all, have you heard the report?
MR TONER: I’m not aware of any plans. I’ve seen the reports.
MR TONER: I’m not aware of any plans for a speech.
QUESTION: Not a speech. Now they’re saying that it’s going to be like a draft proposal at the United Nations Security Council. Are you aware of that?
MR TONER: Again, I’m aware of the reports that you’re referring to. I’m not aware of any intention to – again, to roll out some kind of new plan or strategy. But that said, we continue to focus on efforts to achieve a two-state solution. We believe it’s absolutely vital to the future of the region.
QUESTION: And including working with the French on this thing – the French proposal?
MR TONER: Including working with the French. We continue to look at the French proposal and to talk to them about it.
MR TONER: Sure, and then I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the hunt for Joseph Kony. Ugandan army has played an important partner role in reducing the scope of Kony’s LRA organization, but this week there were reports that they were withdrawing. Can you clarify whether they are indeed withdrawing and whether the U.S. is engaged in negotiations to keep them for a bit longer?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, we are – I can confirm we’re working closely with the Ugandan military and other contributors to the African Union Regional Task Force to ensure a successful completion of their mission. And I can say the Ugandan military’s long commitment to countering the Lord’s Resistance Army has resulted in improved security for the people of Uganda. In collaboration with the African Union and the United Nations, the United States continues to support the efforts of the countries in the region to combat the threat and end the threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army and bring the remaining LRA leaders to justice. I can say that over the past four years the Ugandan military has removed four, I think, of the LRA’s top five most senior and notorious commanders from the battlefield. So they have done tremendous work, and we want to see those efforts continue.
QUESTION: So you’re still in negotiations about whether they remain?
MR TONER: Well, I just think I don’t want to talk about our consultations and discussions with the Uganda military; just to say that we continue our collaboration and we want to see a successful completion of the mission.
QUESTION: And just as a follow-up to that --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: The LRA Crisis Tracker, which looks at detailed data, suggests that Joseph Kony’s group has begun to abduct individuals again. And some groups, the Enough Project in particular is concerned that this could lead to the LRA becoming powerful again in the region. Do you have any words of reassurance in that regard?
MR TONER: Well, I would just say that our overarching strategy focuses on the protection of the civilian population. And it’s also, frankly, focused on apprehending or removing Joseph Kony and – as well as other remaining senior LRA commanders from the battlefield.
But we’re going to continue to pursue those objectives. It’s all about, fundamentally, as you note, providing for the security of the people who are affected by this group. We – without speaking to necessarily whether we’ve seen an uptick in kidnappings or other efforts to intimidate the local populations, we’re going to continue to collaborate, as I said, with and cooperate with those security forces that make up this regional task force. We have had – we have seen success thus far, but the mission is not complete yet.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: The UN said today that the results of the initial fact-finding mission by the UN mission in Juba – or the initial fact-finding investigation by the UN mission in Juba into the attack on the Terrain apartments, it’s expected to be turned over to the UN this week. But after the announcement of the special investigation by the secretary-general last night, they’re saying the results of this fact-finding investigation will not be released to the public. Do you think that considering the nature of these attacks and the accusations towards the UN peacekeepers that this fact-finding investigation and the result of it should be released to the public?
MR TONER: Well, first of all, I mean, I think we’ve spoken to this in detail over the last couple of days, and I know Ambassador Power also issued a very strong statement regarding the UN’s – or the need for the UN to carry out as quickly as possible an investigation into what happened. I think we’re always encouraging transparency in these kinds of reports. But I think what’s mostly important – or most important here is that they carry out as quickly as possible this fact-finding review of the incident to determine how – to ensure this never happens again.
QUESTION: Do you need a fact-finding mission to tell you that the UN did nothing to respond when they were told that they – these people, these aid workers, were in need of help?
MR TONER: I think always in these kinds of incidents – and again, this was absolutely abhorrent what happened, but I think it’s always useful to look at – to not draw at any broad conclusions but to look at the timeline of what happened and to understand the decision-making that went into that process – as I said, if only to make sure that in future cases – similar situations, rather – that this doesn’t happen again.
QUESTION: Can you say how many Americans were implicated in that attack, or victims in that attack?
MR TONER: I don’t think we’ve been able to give a precise number, and the reason why is we don’t have Privacy Act waivers on all the individuals involved. I’m not certain I have a firm number there. I apologize.
QUESTION: Well, if there were Privacy Act waivers, that would imply that there were Americans, right? So --
MR TONER: There were Americans. We’ve --
QUESTION: But – so you can – can you say, again, a number of Americans even if you don’t have the waivers? Like, no, we’re not asking for specific information. Just if --
MR TONER: Sorry, you’re looking for a specific number or you’re saying --
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, how many Americans were victims there?
MR TONER: I’ll see what I can get for you on that. I don’t have it in front of me.
QUESTION: And also, staying in South Sudan --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- the Sudanese Government has apparently rejected the UN Security Council resolution for the troops. Do you have any reaction to that, and does it – what’s the next step if indeed they do reject?
MR TONER: You’re talking about – I’m sorry, South Sudan?
QUESTION: Yes. Oh, sorry, Sudan.
MR TONER: Sudan. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Okay.
QUESTION: Yeah, sorry. Getting mixed up.
MR TONER: So – and I apologize. The question again? I was trying to look for the figure that Justin had asked for. I apologize. Can you just give me the question one more time?
QUESTION: So there was a UN Security Council resolution I think a few days ago – I don’t know if my colleagues can help me with that – that authorized a new set of troops to go in. And the government has rejected that. I think it was – it was South Sudan.
QUESTION: South Sudan.
QUESTION: Sorry, it was.
MR TONER: Yeah, this is South Sudan. That’s why I was confused. Well, we do support the deployment of a regional protection force under the auspices of UNMISS, and that was authorized, as you noted, by the UN Security Council on August 12th, to help restore and preserve the stability in Juba. So we want to see that UN Security Council resolution adhered to. Such a force, we believe, needs to be able to ensure free and safe movement in Juba, as well as the protection of vital infrastructure. And we have supported the region’s request in calling on the Government of Sudan – South Sudan, rather, to accept the deployment of this force for the purpose of restoring stability and for the purpose of re-establishing a level of normalcy and stability for the people.
QUESTION: Mark, to stay in South Sudan --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- since South Sudan soldiers are responsible for the attack on July 11, is the State Department considering taking additional sanctions against South Sudan leadership? And what do you respond to Human Rights Watch, who pressed you again to impose an arms embargo on the two parties?
MR TONER: Sure. I mean, I don’t have anything particular to announce in terms of additional sanctions. We might – we obviously want to see both sides in the conflict – or all sides, rather, in the conflict cease their violence so that, as I said, some kind of stability and normalcy can return to the situation on the ground. And that means as well as – I believe there was – we saw today, just to – there was an announcement to hold early elections by Kiir and that’s obviously of great concern to us as well, because it is once again a unilateral action that’s in violation of the letter and the spirit of the peace agreement.
So what we want to see, again, is both parties stop the violence and work on adhering to the peace agreement.
Yep. And this is the last question, guys. You’ve had me up here for more than an hour.
QUESTION: Sure thing. The consulate in Lagos or the issue – just – I know you spoke about this on Monday, but I just wanted to see that if – I know that a determination has not been made, but in terms of how many locations are being considered, and was there any concern about the optics of this request coming so soon after Secretary Clinton left office that it almost seems like it might have been waiting for them to leave office before the request was made?
MR TONER: You’re talking about the request for the consulate?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, look, I thought we addressed this last week pretty extensively. We’ve not as of today contracted or acquired any property for a new consulate in Lagos – or Lagos, rather. We have over the past several years identified and looked at and evaluated multiple properties. We’ve had conversations about multiple property with the property owners and their representatives because we’re looking, as we’ve noted, to acquire property for a new consulate in Lagos. And this process is in no way connected to or subject to individual preferences or pressure. It’s run out of the Overseas Building Operations. It’s managed by career real estate professionals, and they evaluate potential properties under consideration before any property is put under contract.
So just to clear the air here, this is a process that is followed not just in Lagos but throughout the world when we’re looking at acquiring new properties for either consulates or embassies. And as I said, in Lagos there’s – was no deviation of that process – from that process, rather.
Is that it, guys? Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:10 p.m.)