Daily Press Briefing - August 18, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:18 p.m. EDT
MR KIRBY: Hello, everybody. How are you today?
QUESTION: What’s up?
MR KIRBY: Why do the lights feel different right now?
QUESTION: You’ve been away too long.
MR KIRBY: Maybe that’s what it is.
QUESTION: Also, I’m here.
MR KIRBY: Well, now we can really begin. Good to see you, James.
QUESTION: Welcome back.
First on Turkey. The United States condemns today’s horrific bombings in Elazig and Bitlis. Our friend and ally, Turkey, has suffered several outrageous terror attacks this week, including today’s, the August 15th attack in Diyarbakir, and – that killed seven people, one of whom was a child, and yesterday’s attack in Van. We offer our condolences, obviously, to the families of all those victims and we wish a speedy recovery for those that are wounded in attacks. And it’s a grim reminder of still the threat from terrorism that the Turkish people continue to face.
On travel, I do want to announce that the Secretary will be traveling next week. He’ll travel first to Nairobi, Kenya on the 22nd of August to meet with President Kenyatta to discuss regional security issues and counterterrorism cooperation, as well as other bilateral issues. He’ll also meet with the Kenyan foreign minister and other regional foreign ministers to discuss key challenges in East Africa, including the prospects for resumption of a political process in South Sudan and support to Somalia’s political transition and ongoing fight against al-Shabaab. He’ll also have the opportunity while there to meet with participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative and the Mandela Washington Fellows programs.
The Secretary will then travel to Sokoto and Abuja, Nigeria from the 23rd to the 24th of August. There he will meet with President Buhari to discuss counterterrorism efforts, the Nigerian economy, the fight against corruption, and human rights issues. In Sokoto, the Secretary will deliver a speech on the importance of resilient communities and religious tolerance in countering violent extremism. And while he’s in Abuja, he’ll meet with a group of adolescent girls who are working to change community perceptions that devalue the role of girls in society. He’ll also have a chance to meet with northern governors and religious leaders.
Finally, from the 24th to the 25th of August, he’ll travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for a series of meetings with senior Saudi leaders, his counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen. His discussions there will focus primarily on the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the efforts to restore peace and stability there. Additionally, we expect that the leaders will discuss, obviously, the region’s most pressing challenges, including Syria and our global effort to counter Daesh and violent extremism.
Finally, I want to update you on the issue of the portions of video missing from a press briefing here on the 2nd of December 2013. Now, as you know, this is something we’ve talked about before. I promised you that I would update you when we had completed our review. We’ve done that, so if you’ll bear with me, I’ll give you what I have.
As you know, when this matter came to light, many of us, including Secretary Kerry, had concerns and questions as to how and why this had happened. And so, at the Secretary’s request, the Office of the Legal Adviser spent the last several months looking deeper into the issue. All told, they have spoken with more than 30 current and former employees at all levels of seniority and they’ve gone through emails and other documents to see what information might be available. They have now compiled their findings and a description of their process into a fact-finding review, which has been provided to the Secretary. We’re also sharing it today with Congress and the inspector general.
Here’s the bottom line: We are confident the video of that press briefing was deliberately edited. The white flash that many of you have noticed yourselves in that portion of the video is evidence enough of human involvement. Indeed, a technician came forward, recalled making the edit and inserting that flash. What we were not able to determine was why the edit was made in the first place. There’s no evidence to suggest it was made with the intent to conceal information from the public, and while the technician recalls receiving a phone call requesting the edit, there is no evidence to indicate who might have placed that call or why.
In fact, throughout this process we learned additional information that could call into question any suggestion of nefarious activity. In addition to the fact that the full video was always available on DVIDS and that the full transcript was always on our website, the video was edited in a choppy manner, which made it obvious that footage was missing. We also found that the video likely was shortened very early in the process, only minutes after the briefing concluded and well before the technician who recalled making the edit believes the request was made to make the edit, and in any event before the technician would have been involved in the video production process. It is possible the white flash was inserted because the video had lost footage due to technical or electrical problems that were affecting our control room servers around that time.
Finally, we have confirmed that even if the video was edited with intent to conceal, there was no policy in place at the time prohibiting such an edit. So upon learning that, I think you know, I immediately put a policy in place to preclude that from ever happening. We will also be consulting now with the National Archives and Record Administration about whether any changes to our disposition schedule should be made to address the press briefing videos. Disposition schedules are rules governing the record – official record keeping. The current disposition schedule notes that the written transcript is a permanent record.
Now, I understand that these results may not be completely satisfying to everyone. I think we will all – we would all have preferred to arrive at clear and convincing answers. But that’s not where the evidence or the memories of so many employees about an event, which happened more than two and a half years ago, have taken us. We have to accept the facts as we have found them, learn from them, and move on.
The Secretary is confident that the Office of the Legal Adviser took this task seriously, that they examined it thoroughly, and that we have, indeed, learned valuable lessons as a result. For my part, I want to thank them as well for their diligence and professionalism. We are and I think we will be going forward a better public affairs organization for having worked our way through this.
With that, I’ll take questions.
QUESTION: All right. Well, before we move on to Syria, let’s finish up this videotape episode, or at least dig into it a little bit more. Can you remind me just from that lengthy statement – you think it was not nefarious because it was done badly and because it was done quickly? Is that the essential argument?
MR KIRBY: I said that we weren’t – we aren’t sure whether it was done with intent to conceal or whether it was done as a result of a technical problem. The bottom line is, Brad, it was inconclusive. Some of the additional information that does lead us to think that a glitch is possible here is because of the choppy nature of the cut, which is when – look, when we do the daily briefings, we always cut the top and the bottom, right? So we have an ability to do editing on the – at the beginning and the end of a briefing. Obviously, we have to do that. And we have procedures in place to do that in a nice smooth, clear, very deliberate way, so that when we post the video of today’s briefing, it looks like a totally encompassed, very professional product. So we have the ability to do this in a very professional way.
This cut was not done that way. It was done in a choppy fashion that’s not consistent with the way we typically do that. I’m not saying that that means for sure it was the result of an electrical problem. I’m just saying that it certainly gives us pause, and we have to think about that.
The other aspect of this is the timing. So roughly 18 minutes after the briefing was concluded, the video that was uploaded was shortened – shorter than the actual briefing itself – which would convey that a cut of some kind was made very, very quickly after the briefing, sooner than when the technician remembers – much sooner, actually, than when the technician remembers getting a phone call asking for the cut to be made. So again, we may be dealing with a memory issue. Maybe that’s inconsistent. Or maybe there was – there could have been a technical problem that caused the video to automatically be shortened when it was first uploaded so quickly – 18 minutes after the briefing, which is pretty fast.
So it’s not impossible or inconceivable that there was an intent to conceal information – in other words, nefarious intent here. We’re not ruling that out. But we also cannot, based on the evidence that we have gained, rule out the possibility that there was some technical problem and then to make it known that a cut had been made, a white flash was inserted.
QUESTION: But there were no technical problems on the other videos that still exist.
MR KIRBY: Right, but they don’t --
QUESTION: If that were the case, don’t you think someone would come and admit that rather than nobody of the 30 witnesses you interview can actually remember what happened? It seems like such a ridiculous explanation it shocks me that you’re actually providing it here. But okay.
MR KIRBY: Okay, is that a question or you just want to berate me?
QUESTION: Well, no, I – John, I just think it’s – I think it’s really strange that you’re saying that. I think someone would remember if it were a technical glitch. And how could you say there was a technical glitch, there was a possibility of that, when there’s no other evidence of those glitches on the other videos that exist?
MR KIRBY: I’m saying I can’t rule it out, Justin. There’s also no evidence that anybody did this with a deliberate intent to conceal. We just don’t know. And you might --
MR KIRBY: And I understand – look, as I said at the – as I said at the end of my lengthy statement, that I understand that the inconclusive nature of the findings is not going to be all that satisfying to you. It wasn’t all that satisfying to the rest of us. You don’t think that we would like to know exactly what happened? We just don’t. They interviewed more than 30 current and former employees. They looked at emails and records, and there simply wasn’t anything to make a specific conclusion here.
QUESTION: Let’s put our satisfaction aside for a second. Is this conclusion that you’ve reached, whatever it concludes or not – is that satisfying to the IG? Is the IG now done with his investigation?
MR KIRBY: Well, I’ll let the IG speak for themselves. I’m not aware that the IG has taken this up as – to investigate.
QUESTION: Well, the review, sorry, that you’ve called it.
MR KIRBY: What I can tell you is – again, I cannot speak for the IG. As you know, they’re an independent entity. What I can tell you is that the Office of the Legal Adviser kept the IG informed as they were working through the process. And it’s our understanding that they’re comfortable with the work that was done.
QUESTION: And then lastly, the technician – is there any punishment to him – or I think it’s – she’s been referred to as “her” in the past – to her as a result of cutting the tape, not remembering who told her, not remembering any of the details regarding this?
MR KIRBY: No. There’s nothing to punish anyone for.
MR KIRBY: As I said at the outset, there was no policy prohibiting this kind of an edit. There is now, but there wasn’t at the time. So there’s no wrongdoing here that can be punished.
QUESTION: Can we stipulate in advance of my questions that in pursuing them, I can be absolved of any charges of solipsism or self-centeredness?
MR KIRBY: You’ll have to define solipsism for me. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Believing that one’s self is the center of the universe. I just happen to be --
MR KIRBY: I would never think that of you.
QUESTION: Thank you. (Laughter.) I’m glad to have that on the record. First of all, so that we are clear, what you are telling us is that some unknown person called this technician to request that an edit that had in fact already been made by some unknown force be made again?
MR KIRBY: What I’m saying is, James, we do not know. We have the technician who has recalled getting a phone call to make an edit to the video. And the technician stands by the recollections of that day.
QUESTION: But the edit had already been made.
MR KIRBY: But it’s unclear – well, it’s unclear. Again, 18 minutes after the briefing, we know that the video uploaded – the version that was uploaded to be used on YouTube and our website was shortened by the same amount of the cut. Now, it’s unclear how it got shortened. It’s unclear whether that was the result of an electrical malfunction or it was the result of a deliberate, physical, intentional edit.
QUESTION: But it is the edit we’ve all seen?
MR KIRBY: It is.
QUESTION: Okay. And so –
MR KIRBY: And what was inserted – that the technician did remember getting a phone call, did remember inserting a white flash to indicate that video footage had been missing. So we know – and the white flash is very clear evidence, as I said, of human involvement in the process. But we’re dealing with recollections and memories that are two and a half years ago. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. So I mean, there is – you have to allow for some of that here, and that’s why it’s inconclusive. I’m not at all standing up here telling you that I’m confident that the – to phrase it your way, that there was a – that a call was made to make an edit that had already been done. I just don’t know that that’s what happened.
QUESTION: What is the time gap between the uploading in the video and the time when this technician recalls that call having come in?
MR KIRBY: Let me see if I can find that for you.
QUESTION: And does the video automatically upload to the website?
MR KIRBY: No, it doesn’t.
QUESTION: So it’s possible that someone could have done the edit before it was uploaded.
MR KIRBY: Hang on a second, Ros. I’m trying to answer one question at a time here.
Look, I – James, I just don’t have that level of detail. I think we had --
QUESTION: But you said it’s quite some time – weeks, months, a year. What do we think it was?
MR KIRBY: No, it’s usually – it can take up to a day to get the press briefings uploaded online. It just depends. And so I just don’t have that level of detail here.
QUESTION: In arriving at the conclusion that you’re unable to make a conclusion as to whether a nefarious intent was involved here, it seems that nobody has taken into that assessment the actual content of the briefing that was actually erased or wound up missing. And so I want to ask you point blank: Doesn’t the content of the missing eight minutes tell us something about the intent? It just happens to be, in fact, the one time in the history of this Administration where a spokesperson stood at that podium and made statements that many, many people across the ideological spectrum have interpreted as a concession that the State Department will from time to time lie to preserve the secrecy of secret negotiations. That coincidence doesn’t strike you as reflective of some intent here?
MR KIRBY: Again, James, two points. First of all, the results of the work that we did are inconclusive as to why there was an edit to that day’s press briefing. I wish I could tell you exactly why and what happened.
QUESTION: Did the content factor in?
MR KIRBY: But – hang on, please. But I don’t know. Certainly, there was, as we work through this – I mean, everybody’s mindful of the content of the Q&A that was missing from the video. I think we’re all cognizant of that Q&A. I can go back, certainly, and look, but it’s my understanding that the content, the issue about the content, had been discussed in previous briefings. It wasn’t the first time that that particular content had been discussed.
Number two, as I said, it was always available in its entirety on DVIDS and it was always available in the transcript, so if – again, if somebody was deliberately trying to excise out the Q&A regarding that content, it would have – it would be a pretty ham-fisted and sloppy approach to do it, because the transcript was never not complete and the DVIDS video was always complete, and there were – hang on a second – and there was media coverage that day regarding that exchange, right? And so --
QUESTION: I remember it well.
MR KIRBY: I’m sure you do. So it wasn’t as if the content inside that eight minutes or so was not available to the public immediately that afternoon.
QUESTION: Two final areas here, and I will yield. I appreciate your patience. Nothing in what you’ve said so far today suggests that the contents of this investigation or its conclusions would be classified. And so when you tell us that the report done by the Office of the Legal Adviser is going to be shared not only with the Secretary but with members of Congress, what is it that prevents you from sharing that full report with the public?
MR KIRBY: Nothing. And we have – we intend to make sure that you get access to it. We’re still working through logistics with that, but nothing precludes that.
QUESTION: We look forward to a timetable when you can make it public.
Lastly, did the Office of the Legal Adviser arrive in the course of this review at any conclusion as to whether this video itself constitutes a federal record?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, as I said at my opening statement, we’re working now with the National Archives and Records Administration to take a look at what I’ve called disposition schedules, the rules governing what is and what is not considered a public record. But at the time and as of today, the transcript is considered a permanent record, official record, of these daily briefings.
QUESTION: So the answer to my question is the Office of the Legal Adviser did not make any determination as to whether this video constitutes a federal record, yes or no?
MR KIRBY: No, and that wasn’t their --
MR KIRBY: First of all, James, that wasn’t their task. Their task was to try to find out what happened. And (b) it’s not up to the Office of the Legal Adviser to determine what is or what isn’t a permanent, official record. That’s determined by NARA, and that’s why we’re consulting with them right now.
QUESTION: The videotape in question was shot with a State Department camera, correct?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: It was uploaded to the State Department website by a State Department technician, correct?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: The State Department website is maintained by State Department employees, correct?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: This video on the State Department website is in a separate place on the website from the transcript, correct?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: One has to push a different button to access the video from the button that one pushes to access the transcript, correct?
MR KIRBY: That’s my understanding.
QUESTION: I have no further questions.
QUESTION: Okay, I have one question just to make sure.
QUESTION: It’s like a court of law. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: It sounds like a federal record to me, John. It would be very counter-intuitive – it would be very counter-intuitive to --
MR KIRBY: Let James – let James talk.
QUESTION: It seems very counter-intuitive to imagine that a videotape of a State Department briefing that is shot, uploaded, maintained by federal employees would not itself be a federal record --
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- considered distinct and separate from the federal record that is the transcript, which is typed by separate employees and maintained on a separate place on the website.
MR KIRBY: So look, let me address that because it’s a fair point. A couple of things. There’s no requirement for us, no requirement, even today, to upload videos of this daily press briefing on my website, our website, or on YouTube, on our YouTube channel. We do that as a courtesy, but there’s no requirement to do that. And that’s one.
Number two, the entire video was also streamed into the DVIDS program, which is a different channel. I’m not a technician, but it’s different, a completely different channel, which is why DVIDS had it complete without any problems. And of course, the transcript is and we have considered the transcript as the official record of these daily briefings. And we consulted NARA at the outset of this process, and they concurred that in their view the transcript is an official record of these daily briefings. But they’re also willing to talk with us about going forward whether or not we need to take a look at those disposition schedules to see if that definition needs to be expanded to include video.
So, James, we actually asked ourselves the very same questions you’ve just interrogated me on, and we’re working – and I mean that in a --
QUESTION: But not with the same panache. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: No, not with the same self-centeredness. (Laughter.) But honestly, we asked ourselves the same questions. In fact, we still are, James. And so we’re working with the National Archives on this and we’ll see where that goes.
QUESTION: So let me get this straight. If the DVIDS video was the same – shot by the same camera, it’s the same thing, and it had no problems, I’m having trouble understanding why you would assume and conclude that it’s so possible that your version would have some technical glitch that needed to be edited. I thought we got past the “it was a technical glitch” line. I’m really surprised to see that back in the narrative, because if their version is clean, why --
MR KIRBY: It’s a different – first of all, it’s a different system.
QUESTION: It would be highly unlikely, John, that there would just be some minor problem on your end. It seems implausible and not worth mentioning as a defense.
MR KIRBY: Justin, look, I’m not going to dispute the confusion that you’re having over this. I can tell you, as I said, we would have all preferred that there was some clear, convincing evidence of exactly what happened. But there isn’t. I can’t make it up. I can’t – I can’t just pull out of thin air an exact reason for what happened.
QUESTION: Well --
MR KIRBY: So because I can’t – but because I can’t and because the Office of the Legal Adviser couldn’t, based on interviews, based on looking at documentary evidence, we can’t rule out the fact that there were – and there were some server problems that we were having around that time. I can’t tell you with specificity that it was on that day and at that hour, but we were having some problems. And it’s not out of the realm of the possible that the white flash was inserted rather – for nefarious purposes, but more to indicate that there was some missing footage and we wanted to make that obvious.
QUESTION: All the – I mean, all the evidence – who would come to the technician 18 minutes after the briefing and say, “I noticed that there was a technical” – telling the technician there was a technical problem. It just doesn’t seem --
MR KIRBY: This technician is not – this technician does not work in the office that typically edits the daily briefings.
MR KIRBY: Look, Justin, I can’t possibly --
QUESTION: But it was someone within Public Affairs, not in the technician’s office, who instructed --
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- the change be made. That’s what you guys have said. And the idea that that person would have noticed some --
MR KIRBY: We’ve said that that is what this individual recalled.
QUESTION: -- would have some knowledge of a technical glitch that the technician needed to be instructed on, all of it seems totally implausible. That’s not a question.
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: I have --
MR KIRBY: But all I can say to you is I can’t answer the question you’re asking. We have tried to answer the question you’re asking, and we have spent many months now working on it. And it’s – the results are inconclusive in that regard. I can’t change that fact, and that is a fact.
QUESTION: I just have a clarification point, just real quick, real quick.
MR KIRBY: Hang on just a second. Hang on, just --
QUESTION: Very small one.
QUESTION: One quick – yeah, mine’s a minor point too.
QUESTION: Just one – one thing just from another person other than the immediate group there. We’ve jumped around this issue and around it --
MR KIRBY: Are you separate from the media group here?
QUESTION: I’m different from the immediate group up there.
QUESTION: He said “immediate.”
MR KIRBY: Oh, the immediate group.
QUESTION: So this sounds like a very thorough internal probe, more than two dozen people interviewed. Did the probe identify who from Public Affairs made the call requesting the change? Yes or no.
MR KIRBY: No.
QUESTION: Unable to do it?
MR KIRBY: Unable to do that.
QUESTION: Sorry, can you just remind me? I just need to clarify these things. The request to the technician was to do what? I recalled it was to cut the tape.
MR KIRBY: The technician recalls getting a phone call --
MR KIRBY: -- from somebody in Public Affairs to edit the video. That is still the memory of the technician and that’s reflected in the review.
QUESTION: So why did the – so what did they edit if it was already – if this section of the tape was already missing, what did that technician actually do?
MR KIRBY: The technician remembers getting the phone call and inserting a white flash to mark the fact that the video had been shortened.
QUESTION: So it’s – so the request was to edit the video, and then the technician decided upon herself to insert a white flash as a transparency flasher or something?
MR KIRBY: The technician recalled inserting the white flash so that it was obvious that a cut had been made.
QUESTION: But the request wasn’t to insert a white flash. The request was to cut the video, wasn’t it?
MR KIRBY: Again – again – I’m not disputing that. That is what – that is what the technician remembers – getting a call --
QUESTION: So why did this very obedient and forgetful technician --
MR KIRBY: Hang on, hang on, hang on.
QUESTION: -- suddenly decide they were going to insert white flashes?
MR KIRBY: The technician remembers getting a call to edit the video, has recalled and come forward and said that that edit was made and that a white flash was inserted. I can’t – I’m not – I’m not at all, and we’re not disputing, the recollections. As I said at the outset, in working through this, additional information came to light which also forces us to consider the possibility that there might have been a technical problem here that truncated, shortened some of that video since so shortly after the briefing – 18 minutes, which is much faster than we typically get to compiling this and posting it in an – on a normal day – happened. So nobody’s challenging the account --
MR KIRBY: -- but it’s because we have additional information that we’ve now uncovered that makes it inconclusive on our part.
QUESTION: I just have two more questions. One, did the technician indicate where she came up with the white flash idea? Was that just being really enterprising?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I’m not an expert on this. As I understand it --
QUESTION: Or was that the --
MR KIRBY: -- or I’ve been told that that is not an unusual --
MR KIRBY: -- procedure for making a deliberate cut and to make it obvious.
MR KIRBY: But I don’t – I’m not an expert.
QUESTION: Why didn’t – why did nobody in your entire apparatus think of using the good tape that was sent to the DVIDS and just using that?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have an answer for you on that. Again, it was always available on DVIDS. And I’m not – I wasn’t here at the time, so I don’t know how much visibility there was above the technician level on this and that technician’s supervisor. I just don’t know.
QUESTION: But if the white light was meant as some sort of effort at transparency, one, you would have said something, probably indicated somewhere when you posted it, “missing tape,” no? Not let people hopefully see a white light and divine what that means.
MR KIRBY: I can’t go back --
QUESTION: Secondly, wouldn’t you just use the good tape and just put it in?
MR KIRBY: Brad, I can’t go back two and a half years here and --
QUESTION: Well --
MR KIRBY: -- and try to get in the heads of people that --
QUESTION: -- you’ve raised this like spectral theory that maybe everybody did everything perfectly and we just misinterpreted it.
MR KIRBY: No I did not. And I never called it a spectral theory, okay?
QUESTION: I did.
MR KIRBY: What I’m saying is I can’t go back two and a half years and try to re-litigate the decision making. The technician remembers getting a call, making a cut, inserting a white flash, talking to the supervisor about it. Conversations that happened above that level I simply can’t speak to because I don’t know. And it would be great if we could go back and rewrite the whole history on this, but we can’t do that. All I can do is learn from this and move on. And now we have a policy in place that no such edits can happen without my express permission and approval before it happens. And as I said, there was no policy at the time against this kind of thing, so there’s no wrongdoing.
QUESTION: John --
QUESTION: Can we go to Syria?
QUESTION: No, I just have --
QUESTION: Can we move to Syria?
QUESTION: I have one more. I have one more.
MR KIRBY: Are we all – are we done on the video?
QUESTION: No, I have one more just to wrap this up, because you just said that edits cannot be made without your express knowledge and consent. What is the workflow now for recording these videos of these briefings and other events, and uploading them to the website? What is the basic workflow?
MR KIRBY: The workflow hasn’t changed. The workflow – it’s the same procedure that’s been used in the past. And again, I’m not an expert on the way our technicians – who are very professional, very competent – do their jobs. I didn’t change anything about that process except to insert a rule that there will be no editing of briefing, press briefing videos, without my express consent and approval beforehand. But I did not change the process.
QUESTION: That’s understood. But I will say as someone with 24 years in news, television news, there’s always another pair of eyes looking at what someone does in terms of work. And so I’m asking, one, once you record a video, now that everything is digital, it’s pretty easy to upload things pretty quickly. You don’t need 24 hours. Number two, if you are uploading something, there’s going to be someone in the process – a media manager, a producer, an editor – who’s going to verify that the work was done and that the work didn’t have any technical glitches. Who is checking up on the work of the technician, or is the technician simply working and ticks off a box, I’ve done this task, and moves on?
MR KIRBY: There is a process that supervisory personnel are involved in. I don’t have the exact flowchart for you here today. But I’m comfortable that the process works, and it works every day. It’s going to work today. It worked yesterday, and it worked the days before that. I’m not worried about that. I think everybody understands our obligations and our responsibilities.
I can’t speak for the specifics in this digital environment. Again, I’m not a technician; I’m not an expert at this. But I’m comfortable that our staff is competent and trained, have the resources available to do this in a professional way, and that they’ll continue to do that.
QUESTION: Just a few last ones. Thank you very much, John. Do you stand by the statements you made when you first started briefing on this particular subject that this entire episode reflects a failing to meet your usual standards for transparency?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I do. I mean, again, we don’t know exactly what happened here, but obviously, we would never condone an intent to conceal, if that’s, in fact, what happened. Now again, I can’t say that that happened. But if it did, then yes, obviously, that would not meet our standards. And frankly, and if I might add, it didn’t meet the standards of my predecessors either. Jen Psaki, Marie Harf, Victoria Nuland – none of them would ever abide by any kind of intent to conceal information from a daily briefing.
QUESTION: The reason I ask is because when you started briefing on this subject in May, you told us that this wasn’t a glitch, that it was an intentional and deliberate erasure. Now, following the investigation by the Office of Legal Adviser, you seem to be retracting that and saying we honestly can’t say one way or the other. And so if your previous comments were to the effect that this represented a failing of transparency, I wonder if you would like an opportunity to retract those as well.
MR KIRBY: I said at the time that it was a deliberate intent to edit and I said it again today. I mean, obviously there’s human involvement here.
MR KIRBY: So we know that there was a deliberate edit to the video. What I can’t say, based on the work now that they’ve done, is why that occurred.
QUESTION: Well --
MR KIRBY: But James, if it was – and we may never know, right? – but if it was an intent to conceal information from the public, that’s clearly inappropriate.
QUESTION: You mentioned that more than 30 employees were interviewed as part of this process. Were those interviews recorded or transcribed?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know.
QUESTION: You stated that those 30 employees ranged the gamut of seniority. Does that – are we to interpret that remark as an indication that the Secretary himself was interviewed?
MR KIRBY: The Secretary was not interviewed for this.
QUESTION: To your knowledge, did any of the people who were interviewed have counsel with them while they were interviewed?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I’d have to consult the Office of Legal Adviser for that. I don’t know.
QUESTION: To your knowledge, did anyone refuse to take part in the investigation or be --
MR KIRBY: I know of no refusals.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: In fact, the Office of the Legal Adviser made very clear that they were very grateful and appreciative of the support that they got from people that work in Public Affairs today and people that have worked in Public Affairs in the past.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Judicial Watch is suing --
QUESTION: -- for the investigation papers here. Are you aware of that? Do you have any comment?
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen the press reports on that. I don’t have a comment on that.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: I think Carol had a question.
QUESTION: Actually, I’d like to just ask one more question about the tape.
QUESTION: And then we go to --
QUESTION: John, how confident are you that the 30-plus people who answered these questions were truthful? Did you – at least to the best of their knowledge and the best of their memory. Did you ask any of them to take lie detector tests?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I didn’t conduct these interviews, Carol. I wanted this – from the outset, I wanted an independent look at this, and that’s why in the preliminary review I asked the Office of the Legal Adviser to take this on, and that’s why the Secretary followed up and asked them to dig deeper into it, so that it was outside my bureau and outside of my purview. I got you. Hang on just a second. I’ll come to you. So I didn’t get involved in that.
As I said to my answer to James, the Legal Adviser’s Office felt very, very comfortable and confident that they had gotten all the support that they needed and cooperation that they needed. And I know of no instance in which they thought or felt in any way that anyone they spoke to was being less than completely candid and honest with them.
QUESTION: Can we go to Syria now?
MR KIRBY: Let’s go to Afghanistan here, and then I’ll – promise I’ll go to Syria.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Any comment about independence day in Afghanistan? And do you think that the Afghanistan has their own independence when we get our independence from the Taliban?
MR KIRBY: Are you asking do I --
QUESTION: Independence day – any statement issued from the State Department?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I mean, obviously Afghanistan is a sovereign country and we congratulate them on the anniversary of independence. But more critically, I just – our message to the Afghan people and to the Afghan Government is that their future matters to the United States and that, as we have long said, we intend to be a partner, we intend to be a friend on many levels – not just from a security sector, but from diplomatic, economic, and a political level of effort – and that’s not going to change.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up.
QUESTION: Can --
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on Afghanistan. People of Afghanistan, the last 93 years, they have gone ups and downs from one regime to another. Now in the last 30 years, they were freed by the U.S. from the Soviet occupation, and now they are under the occupation of Taliban and al-Qaida. And what they’re asking is if and when are they going to be free from these terrorists.
QUESTION: That’s my second question.
MR KIRBY: (Laughter.) I mean, Goyal, I can’t possibly put a date certain on the elimination of the terrorist threat in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan, as we talked about at the opening, isn’t – I mentioned Turkey – isn’t the only country that continues to face a very real threat from terrorism, and we know that groups like Daesh are trying to expand their influence there. And we know that not every member of the Taliban has and is willing to embrace the political process moving forward. That’s why it’s important that the United States continue to make clear our intention and our support of a strong, sovereign, secure, stable Afghanistan.
As a matter of fact, the Secretary spoke with both President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah just this morning about the importance of continuing to move forward with the political and economic reforms that they’re trying to enact, and that all those reforms – and we understand that they are hard to come by – will be key to trying to get to that kind of future in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: You think Pakistan is playing a positive role in this process in Afghanistan?
MR KIRBY: We’ve talked about this before. Look, Pakistan is and must be a key partner in the effort, because they share a long border with Afghanistan and they share common threats and common challenges. And there have been times when Pakistan and Afghanistan didn’t see eye to eye on every issue, and there have been times when they have found ways to work together. And we continue to stress the importance of a strong bilateral relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
QUESTION: Can we go to Syria, please? Can we go to Syria?
MR KIRBY: Okay, Said. Okay, Said, I got you.
MR KIRBY: I got you.
QUESTION: Can I follow up --
QUESTION: I have a very quick --
MR KIRBY: I’ll come back to you later, Lalit. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. On Syria. Today marks the fifth anniversary since the President of the United States, Barack Obama, said that Assad must step aside. I wonder if you have any comment on that. Was it an ill-advised policy at the time? Is it an ill-advised policy today? Are you – did you find yourself sort of restricted or pigeonholed into this goal, so to speak?
MR KIRBY: The short answer to all those questions is no. And the implication that because the President said it five years ago and five years here we are still dealing with Bashar al-Assad, that it was wrong to espouse that view, that it was incorrect to try to move Syria to a better place – a place that doesn’t have Bashar al-Assad at the head of the government – is somehow wrongheaded is – that’s just not – that’s not the case.
And I’m glad you brought that up, because I also want to point out something else the President said that day, okay, because I got it in front of me and I kind of figured I might get asked this. He said, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Those were his exact words. Then he went on and said this: “The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be a foreign intervention in their movement. What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people, along with others in the international community.”
And everything that we’ve done since then has supported that overarching goal, including the work that Secretary Kerry has so energetically pursued not just with Russia but with all the members of the ISSG to move Syria to a better place through a political process. So what the President said five years ago – you have to take that in totality and in all its context, and it still applies today.
QUESTION: I understand, but – I mean, looking at what’s going on in Syria today, the Syrian people’s will, so to speak, has really been reduced, and everybody else is playing a role in this thing. There are regional governments; there are people that are supporting all these opposition groups; others that are supporting the regime and so on. And it seems – this whole process – the Syrian people’s will, so to speak, has been really marginalized.
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m not going to dispute the fact that the Syrian people do not have an adequate voice in their future right now. How many of you seen the video today – the photos of that little boy? Now, he’s about five years old.
MR KIRBY: So my – by my figuring, that little boy has never known a day of his life where there hasn’t been war, death, destruction, poverty in his own country, and you can’t – you don’t have to be a dad – but I am – and you can’t but help and look at that and see that that’s the real face of what’s going on in Syria, and that we all have to pull together to try to reach a better outcome. And this notion that you – that so many people are involved now and it’s very complicated, we agree. It’s one of the reasons why the Secretary is so frustrated by what’s going on on the ground in Syria, and that’s why he continues to urge Russia to work with him on a set of proposals that we agreed to in Moscow and that our teams are still trying to work out to try to get the cessation of hostilities to be more enforceable across the wide expanse of Syria in an enduring way so that we don’t have to look at any more images like the one of that young boy today out of Aleppo.
QUESTION: So --
QUESTION: My last question on this, on this issue. Your counterpart, Maria Zakharova, today said that you are getting at a critical point – your Russian counterpart. They hold a weekly press conference. She said that you’re getting very close to arriving at something regarding Aleppo and regarding a ceasefire. Can you share with us anything in that --
MR KIRBY: I would agree with her to the extent that we continue to have meaningful conversations about trying to reach agreement on the technicalities of these proposals. I’m not going to be predictive here in terms of outcome or when that outcome might be arrived at, but those discussions are ongoing. And they’re, again, proposals that Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Kerry both agreed to some weeks ago in Moscow. We are still committed to having those discussion and those negotiations and to trying to get those proposals agreed to.
QUESTION: Just on the five-year mark issue – then I’ll defer to the broader questions about Syria – presidents in historical terms are judged in large measure on whether they were seen to be shaping events or were, in fact, continually responding to them. And here we had the commander-in-chief, the leader of the free world, saying that this tin-pot dictator across the world must go. He didn’t say just that he should step aside. He said Assad’s days are numbered, Assad must go. And five years later, he’s still there. Doesn’t that indicate an inability on the part of this president to shape events to his own satisfaction?
MR KIRBY: No, James, I don’t think that at all. So first of all, I mean, I’m no historian, but you’re right; presidents are often measured by what proactively they’re able to accomplish, but they’re also measured by what they respond to and how they react. And the world keeps turning, and our enemies get votes, and things happen that require a measure of responsiveness. And the President has acted assertively here, and it was – we were able to get the great – the great majority of the stockpile of chemical material out of Syria through negotiations, not through force.
There’s no doubt that by making a concerted decision to act inside Syria militarily we have put much more pressure on a group like Daesh there and supported those forces on the ground that could be competent against them. And the President has supported and endorsed a diplomatic approach that – the one that Secretary Kerry is pursuing to try to bring about a political solution from the outset. And I read a comment briefly – a comment from what he said five years ago. From the very beginning he’s been talking about a diplomatic political solution here, that there’s not going to be a military solution to the civil war in Syria. So he has been consistent on that, and we have been consisted and concerted in trying to pursue that outcome.
QUESTION: Kirby, when the President said that five years ago, I think the death toll was maybe 2,000, 3,000. It’s now maybe 500,000. So how do you argue that that’s assertive action when he lays out an ideal kind of situation where the Syrian president will leave and five years later that hasn’t happened, but what has happened is hundreds of times more deaths than when he said that?
MR KIRBY: Yeah. No, look, everybody is cognizant of the death and destruction there, Brad, and nobody is happy --
QUESTION: Is that not failure, though, utter failure?
MR KIRBY: It is – it is a failure of Bashar al-Assad. It is Bashar al-Assad who’s been killing his own people – hang on a second --
QUESTION: It’s a success of Assad. He wanted to kill those people. It’s a failure of the people who wanted to stop him.
MR KIRBY: It is a failure of whatever notion of leadership Bashar al-Assad once thought he had, any legitimacy to govern that he thought he had. He lost that. And now I’m not – and nobody – and you shouldn’t take away from anything I’m saying that we’re just – that we’re blithely standing by, ignorant of and uncaring of the suffering of the Syrian people. The United States still leads the way in terms of humanitarian assistance and support for those Syrians that are fleeing the country. We’re getting close now to the President’s goal of bringing in 10,000 here into the United States. We’re leading the efforts. It was the United States who put together – Secretary Kerry put together the International Syria Support Group and who led the way to get a UN Security Council resolution in place to enact, to put in place a cessation of hostilities. Not every actor in this has acted with the same overarching positive goals for what we want Syria to become.
QUESTION: All right. Well, be that as it may, let me just ask you about the news of the day then. The 48-hour pause that’s been suggested --
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- by the Russian military – do you support that? And are you confident --
MR KIRBY: We would support any diminution in the violence. We would support any efforts that would prevent more people from suffering, such as that little boy.
QUESTION: Are you in – sorry --
MR KIRBY: That said – that said, Brad – and I’ve said this before – we really believe it’s important to get beyond temporary, ephemeral, and localized ceasefires. Now, we’re not going to turn up our nose at a genuine effort to stop the bombing, even if it is just for 48 hours. But that’s not the long-term answer, and that’s not what we’re trying to pursue here. That’s why, again, it’s important for Russia to work with us, our teams to work together, to try to come to agreement on the technicalities of these proposals – which, if, as the Secretary said, fully implemented in good faith, could allow the cessation of hostilities to be expanded across the country.
QUESTION: Do you have any assurances from Russia that if this pause were to come into effect, that that would even mean the humanitarian convoys getting into Aleppo and other besieged areas? I’m sure you saw that the special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, kind of walked out of the meeting today.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, no. I think that’s a measure of his frustration too and where we’re going here with these – with the fact the humanitarian assistance is not getting where it needed to be. It has always been a staple of our discussions with the Russians, and quite frankly, with anybody else involved in the effort on Syria, that humanitarian assistance and access has got to be provided. So it is part of – it is absolutely part and parcel of the discussions that we’re having with the Russians right now.
QUESTION: But you don’t have any assurance yet that this new window that’s being talked about would include that?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen anything specific about this window with respect to humanitarian access. But Brad, more importantly, that’s got to be – that’s a baseline need. That’s not – now look, if that comes as a part of the 48-hour ceasefire, again, we’re not going to turn up our nose at that. That’s a good thing. But it’s got to be and always has been in our view a foundational element. You have to have it across the board every day, and that hasn’t been the case. The regime has been throwing up obstacles, preventing convoys from reaching, or stealing medicine out of them routinely.
QUESTION: And then lastly, your planning note on the trip had it kind of abruptly ending in Saudi. Is there any chance the Secretary then flies on to Geneva to meet Foreign Minister Lavrov --
MR KIRBY: I don’t --
QUESTION: -- and talks about Syria thereafter?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have --
QUESTION: Or will it be a direct flight home?
MR KIRBY: (Laughter.) I do not have anything additional on the Secretary’s schedule to speak to today.
MR KIRBY: Syria?
QUESTION: Also on Syria.
MR KIRBY: Everybody’s on Syria? You’re on Turkey. We’re going to stay on Syria. Go ahead.
MR KIRBY: You were on Syria?
QUESTION: No, North Korea.
MR KIRBY: Oh, North Korea. No, I’m not getting to that right now.
QUESTION: Thank you. So today the U.S.-backed YPG rebels in Syria were bombed by the Assad regime. It was reported by Reuters and other news agencies as well. Do you have any reaction to this?
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen those reports. I can’t confirm them. I’m not in a position to do that right now. I think you know that’s difficult for me to do on the same day as – when operations occur. But obviously, we’re taking it seriously and we’re looking at it.
QUESTION: Okay. I mean, there were videos of the attacks on the rebels by multiple news outlets. You can confirm later. But if actually --
MR KIRBY: Thank you.
QUESTION: -- they came under attack, would the United States do anything? Because these are the rebels that you’ve trained, you’ve provided – you’ve sent U.S. soldiers to train and advise and assist them. Would you do anything about it?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get into a hypothetical situation on an attack I can’t confirm right now. You’re right; we do provide some measure of support to some opposition groups inside Syria, and that support continues today. But I’m not going to hypothesize about military outcomes one way or the other. I’d refer you to my colleagues at the Defense Department. Obviously, if it’s true, it’s a clear violation of the cessation of hostilities, and it’s one that we’re going to continue to try to work on. I just don’t have a better answer for you than that today.
QUESTION: Also on Syria.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: So you mentioned a couple times now this – these images that have gone viral of this young boy. Do you know whether the Secretary has had a chance to review that video and what his, sort of, thoughts were on this?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I’ve not spoken to the Secretary about the video, so I can’t confirm for you that he’s actually seen it. I just don’t know.
QUESTION: Okay. And then sort of beyond any talks of a particular agreement with Russia for a 48-hour ceasefire, why is there not being given more consideration to providing some sort of direct U.S. Government humanitarian assistance to the people in Aleppo and sort of stepping up what the U.S. Government is doing on a humanitarian level to assist people there, just given the level of crisis that we’re now at?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, we’re the largest donor for humanitarian assistance for people in need in Syria. This is – the delivery has been, and we believe important to continue to be, led by the UN. And we support the humanitarian process, assistance in Syria through the UN, but it is the UN that has in the past taken the lead on that, and we think that that’s appropriate.
QUESTION: Do you think it’s appropriate for any further agreements with Russia to be preconditioned on them stopping strikes in and around Aleppo?
MR KIRBY: Again, we’re in a set of serious discussions right now with Russian counterparts about Aleppo specifically, but also about trying to get these proposals in place for a nationwide cessation of hostilities that can actually be enforced. And that means that the regime isn’t killing innocent civilians and isn’t going after opposition groups, and frankly, it also means that the opposition groups are not going to be overtly attacking the regime.
So we know we have responsibilities in that regard, as do other nations who have influence over those opposition groups. And we also know that Russia has an obligation here, that they have influence over Assad, that when they have chosen to use it in the past has worked, and when they don’t choose to use that influence, obviously we see scenes such as what we’re seeing out of Aleppo.
So if you’re asking me is there a precondition to the – to stopping the violence, absolutely there is. And that has to be, first and foremost, the regime stopping the killing and maiming of innocent civilians.
QUESTION: And then last one, a little bit different. There’s some reports out there that another American citizen was killed near Manbij fighting with the YPG. Do you have anything on that?
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen reports of it, but I don’t have any information on that.
QUESTION: Now, you began by condemning today’s PKK terrorism in Turkey, and the PKK attacks now seem to be escalating and becoming more bloody. But at the same time, the Turkish Government is using a heavy hand against peaceful Kurdish political activity, including the indictment last week of Selahattin Demirtas, the head of the HDP, the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament. What is your view of this? Do you think that Ankara might be making a serious mistake in denying Turkish Kurds a democratic alternative to the PKK?
MR KIRBY: Well, as I said, we did condemn the violence there in Turkey, and I have seen the reports about Mr. Demirtas, and we are following that issue, that very specific issue. As we said before, we’re concerned by the aggressive use of judicial inquiries to curb free speech and political discourse in Turkey. And we support – have and always will support – freedom of expression there, and we’re going to continue to oppose any action to encroach on the right to free speech.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: I have a quote here. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, quote, “It seems to us that NATO members behave in an evasive fashion on issues such as the exchange of technology and joint investments. Turkey intends to develop its own defense industry and strengthen its defense system. In this sense, if Russia were to treat with – this with interest, we are ready to consider the possibility of cooperation in this sector,” end quote. Is there – is that a fair criticism of NATO, and do you think it is a good idea for the NATO ally to cooperate with Russia in the defense sector?
MR KIRBY: Well, there’s a lot there. First of all, I haven’t seen those comments, but let’s put that aside for a minute. Turkey remains a NATO ally and an important partner in the fight against Daesh, and we expect both those relationships, those multilateral relationships, to continue. I can’t speak for NATO, but the United States, as a member of NATO, has every expectation that Turkey’s membership in the alliance will continue and continue to be important to alliance operations around the world.
As for a change or modifications to the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Russia, that’s between them. And there’s certainly no prohibition against that. There’s no reason for anybody to be concerned. We’re certainly not concerned that – if Turkey and Russia are going to work out a new or different bilateral relationship, based on security and defense issues. That’s for them to decide.
We still value Turkey’s membership in the alliance. We still value Turkey’s membership and contributions as part of the coalition against Daesh. And as I said, we’re going to continue to look for ways to see that deepen and strengthen.
QUESTION: Cavusoglu also described Turkey as being treated as, quote/unquote, a second – by the U.S. and NATO as quote/unquote, “a second-class country.” We hear U.S. officials say Turkey is a strong ally, and there seems to be a disconnect between what U.S. officials say and what the Turkish leadership expresses. Why the disconnect?
MR KIRBY: Well, I can’t explain – first of all, again, I haven’t seen those comments, so I’m not going to speak to the veracity of them. If there are views inside Turkey that there’s some disconnect, they can speak to that. What I can tell you from our perspective is what I said before – they’re a valued ally and a partner and a friend, and we want to continue to see Turkey succeed. We want to see Turkey’s contributions in the international community on many levels – not just the security sector, but on many levels – continue. And so we’re going to work to that end.
QUESTION: Over the past many months, Turkey has accused the U.S. of all kinds of things, including supporting terrorists, including siding with coup plotters. Do you think this is business as usual, or has something changed?
MR KIRBY: What business as usual?
QUESTION: Turkey making all these accusations. And does this sound like business as usual? Because it sounds like you’re trying to say that everything is normal, but --
MR KIRBY: I didn’t everything is normal. I said they remain a key ally, partner, and friend, and that hasn’t changed. I mean, that’s just a fact.
QUESTION: What has changed?
MR KIRBY: That’s – well, what’s changed is Turkey’s under a little bit of stress right now, having faced a failed coup attempt. And we’ve already addressed our concerns about some of the rhetoric coming out from some Turkish leaders about the role of the West or the role of the United States, and we’ve obviously flatly rejected any insinuation or allegation that the United States had anything to do with that. Again, Turkey’s a friend and an ally, and we’re going to continue to look for ways to make that partnership continue to grow. But we’re not doing it with a blind eye here. We understand that there are – there’s a lot of stressors in Turkey right now. We want – because we want Turkey to succeed, we’re not afraid – when we see things that concern us about judicial processes and about freedom of the press, we’re not afraid to state privately and publicly our concerns, because Turkey’s future matters so much to us.
QUESTION: More on Turkey?
QUESTION: Can we go to Iran?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: One more on Turkey.
QUESTION: One more on Turkey. What is your reaction to Gulen’s latest comments, likening – sorry – Erdogan’s latest comments likening Gulenists, or followers of Gulen, to those of Daesh?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, as I’ve made a practice of doing in the past, I’m not going to respond to every single issue raised publicly out of Turkey. I hadn’t seen the comments by the foreign minister. And while I’ve seen those comments, I’m not going to respond to every sentence that’s uttered out of Turkish leaders.
What we think would be most helpful is that we move beyond issues of rhetoric and try to look for ways to keep the cooperation and the relationship strong with Turkey. We have already and repeatedly condemned the coup attempt. We understand Turkey has an obligation to look after its own security. What we’ve said then and what we continue to say now is that we want Turkey to do that in a way that is in keeping with international law and their own obligations and fair judicial processes. So again, I’m not going to respond to every statement.
QUESTION: It’s a pretty strong accusation to say the United States is harboring someone like a Daesh leader.
MR KIRBY: I think you know our position on their concerns over Mr. Gulen. I think you also know well and we’ve made clear our position about what happened in the failed coup and the responsibility for it. I don’t have anything more to add to that.
QUESTION: In fairness to Suzanne, you’re not being asked to comment on every statement out of Turkish leaders, just the ones we ask you about. But in any case --
MR KIRBY: They’re the ones I’m not going to respond to. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: On Iran, one assumes that you’re familiar with the latest Wall Street Journal report concerning the payment of the 400 million to Iran. Is there anything in The Wall Street Journal story that you dispute on factual grounds?
MR KIRBY: (Laughter.) Look, rather than getting up here, as much as I’m sure you’d love for me to pick apart every media story --
QUESTION: It’s a very simple question. Is there anything you say is untrue in that story?
MR KIRBY: What I would like to do is respond to it this way, okay, because I’ve seen the article. So let me just – let me address this whole issue of timing this way. We were able to conclude multiple strands of diplomacy within a 24-hour period – and oh, by the way, you can go back and look at your own work that was done back then, and you’ll see that we were completely above board about this. Even the President himself talked about the timing. We were able to conclude multiple strands of diplomacy within a 24-hour period, including implementation of the nuclear deal, the prisoner talks, and the settlement of an outstanding Hague Tribunal claim which saved American taxpayers potentially billions of dollars.
As we said at the time, we deliberately leveraged that moment to finalize these outstanding issues nearly simultaneously. It’s already publicly known that we returned to Iran its $400 million in that same time period as part of The Hague settlement agreement. With concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release given unnecessary delays regarding persons in Iran who could not be located as well as, to be quite honest, mutual mistrust between Iran and the United States, we, of course, sought to retain maximum leverage until after American citizens were released. That was our top priority.
QUESTION: So there was – hold on.
QUESTION: Just to return to my question, is there anything in The Wall Street Journal story that you dispute on factual grounds?
MR KIRBY: You’d have to – look, I don’t have the article in front of me so I’m not going to go through line by line.
QUESTION: I’m not asking you to do that.
MR KIRBY: I know you --
QUESTION: I’m just saying you read the thing. If there’s something leapt out at you that you said, “Well, that’s untrue,” you would be in a position to tell us, wouldn’t you?
MR KIRBY: James, I think I’ve characterized the central finding of the story, which was that – that the payment of the 400 million was not done until after the prisoners were released. I’m not disputing that.
QUESTION: Why weren’t you able to tell us that 10 days ago when I myself asked the question, “Can you at least assure us that those prisoners were in the process of being released before that money touched down?”
MR KIRBY: As I said at the time, we weren’t in a position then and had no intention of getting into a tick-tock for every moment that happened in that 24-hour period. That’s what I answered your question at the time. I think it was me. And we answered your question at the time. That was – it was not – never our intention to have to do that. But you’re asking me about a press story that’s already been written about it that has more detail about it, so I’m providing some context with respect to that.
QUESTION: But you’re --
QUESTION: But you are – you are changing a little bit, because first you said that this was two separate diplomatic tracks. That’s what the White House said. That’s what the State Department said. Now you’re saying that it was used as leverage, which would --
QUESTION: Connect the two.
QUESTION: -- connect the two. Thank you, James. Connect them.
MR KIRBY: They were still – they were independent efforts.
QUESTION: But you were using one for leverage in --
MR KIRBY: They came together --
QUESTION: -- as a part of the other.
MR KIRBY: Well, they came together near simultaneously. And I think it would make sense, perfect sense, that when we’re in this moment that you --
QUESTION: It would. It does make sense.
MR KIRBY: If your top priority is to get your Americans out and you’re already having some issues about locating some of them, that you want to make sure that that release gets done before you complete that transaction.
QUESTION: So they’re connected.
MR KIRBY: No, they’re – they’re connected in the sense that they came together at the same time and we obviously were making a priority getting the Americans out. And frankly, I think if we had done it – if we had done it any differently, then I think you and I and James and I would be having a much different conversation up here, wouldn’t we?
QUESTION: The payment was contingent on their release --
MR KIRBY: What I’m saying is --
MR KIRBY: What I’m saying is that because we had concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release, given unnecessary delays already regarding some persons in Iran as well as some mutual mistrust, we, of course, naturally, and should be held to task if we didn’t, sought to retain maximum leverage until after the Americans were released. That was our top priority.
QUESTION: How – can you connect the dots for me? How does the withholding of the cash give you the kind of leverage you were seeking?
MR KIRBY: We felt that it would be imprudent not to consider that some leverage in trying to make sure that our Americans got out.
QUESTION: So if it has leverage on the release of the Americans, then there’s a direct connection between these two events, you’re now telling us, right?
MR KIRBY: I’m saying the events came together simultaneously. But obviously, when you’re inside that 24-hour period and you already now have concerns about the endgame in terms of getting your Americans out, it would have been foolish, imprudent, irresponsible, for us not to try to maintain maximum leverage. So if you’re asking me was there a connection in that regard at the endgame, I’m not going to deny that.
QUESTION: Was there a sense --
QUESTION: So wait, hold on. So getting away from the word “leverage,” which is – in basic English, you’re saying that you wouldn’t give them the 400 million in cash until the prisoners were released, correct?
MR KIRBY: That’s correct.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
QUESTION: Is it because the U.S. knew that the Iranians wanted that money at any cost?
MR KIRBY: I’m not – I can’t get inside the Iranian brain here. First of all, remember, it’s their – it was their $400 million --
MR KIRBY: -- that had been awarded to them by The Hague tribunal.
MR KIRBY: So let’s make that clear.
MR KIRBY: And because we already had concerns about the endgame in terms of getting our people out, we didn’t want to take any chances. And so we believed that as much leverage as could be had, we wanted to have. We wanted to keep as much leverage as possible. We believed that holding up that delivery was prudent, and we have released Americans now, I think, to – we can’t – we’ll never know for sure, but at least we got those – we got those people home.
QUESTION: How much time did it take?
MR KIRBY: And there’s no apologies for that whatsoever.
QUESTION: Yeah. And wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that a ransom is paid and then you get the people back, and not the reverse, which is what happened in this case?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, we don’t pay ransom, Ros.
MR KIRBY: This isn’t – this wasn’t a case of ransom. And again, I need to remind you all, while maybe the – a little bit of the tick-tock here that’s dripping out you might find new and salacious. There’s really nothing new here in the story about how we got those Americans out and how we leveraged opportunities here that were coming together at the same time. You can go back and look at the President’s comments and the Secretary’s comments when all of this happened. There were opportunities here that we took advantage of and, as a result, we were able to get American citizens back home.
QUESTION: Right. But I’m not disputing that – your characterization that this wasn’t ransom. It’s just that my traditional understanding of ransom was someone is holding someone hostage, says, “Give me money, I’ll give you the person.” The money is handed over, the person is then returned. The opposite happened in this case --
MR KIRBY: This was --
QUESTION: -- which is the U.S. citizens were allowed to leave Iran, and then the money from the separate settlement was then transferred.
MR KIRBY: And then their $400 million were --
MR KIRBY: -- was provided to them.
QUESTION: So --
MR KIRBY: I don’t know how --
QUESTION: That doesn’t sound like a quid pro quo at all, John.
QUESTION: Yeah, that’s – that was my point. Beyond saying there’s no ransom, you’ve said several times – a lot of people from different podiums in this government have said there was no quid pro quo. What you just described is by definition a quid pro quo, is it not?
MR KIRBY: No.
QUESTION: How is it not? You said they would not get the money until they were released – quid, quo.
MR KIRBY: Thank you for the Latin expert. (Laughter.) The Latin lesson, the Latin lesson.
QUESTION: I mean, what is that – what am I missing in the quid pro quo that you have just outlined?
MR KIRBY: Brad, they were going to get this money anyway because The Hague tribunal decided that they were going to get their money back. And --
QUESTION: No, they hadn’t decided that.
MR KIRBY: There was a negotiation inside The Hague tribunal that they were going to recover the $400 million principal and then some interest that we negotiated, which saved the taxpayers a lot of money. That process was moving forward and it was moving forward on an independent track.
Separately and distinctly, we were also in talks with them about getting our Americans back. That was also done by a different team and moving forward. These two tracks came together in a very finite period of time. And it would have been – given the fact that Iran hadn’t proved completely trustworthy in the past, it would have been imprudent and irresponsible for us to not – since we knew this payment was coming and coming soon, to not hold it up until we made sure we had our Americans out.
QUESTION: Which is why everyone called it a quid pro quo at the beginning, and you disputed that. So I don’t quite understand how that changes anything. You’re saying it would have been imprudent not to link the payment – the delivery of the money – to the release of the prisoners, but you’re saying the delivery of the money wasn’t a quid pro quo related to the release of the prisoners because there’s a backstory.
MR KIRBY: Because The Hague Tribunal had decided, the negotiation had been settled – that process was moving forward and would have moved forward regardless. But because it all happened in a short period of time, yes, we took advantage of that to make sure we had the maximum leverage possible to get our people out and to get them out safely.
QUESTION: So it was a quid pro quo.
MR KIRBY: No.
QUESTION: You took advantage of it and you made it a quid pro quo.
MR KIRBY: We took advantage of leverage that we thought we could have to make sure that they got out safely and efficiently.
QUESTION: So you were holding the Iranians’ money hostage.
MR KIRBY: No, James.
QUESTION: They paid the ransom.
MR KIRBY: No, James. It’s their money. It’s their money.
QUESTION: Because they released the prisoners.
MR KIRBY: They were going to get it anyway.
QUESTION: Would you at least agree, John --
MR KIRBY: But look, guys, we had to – if we hadn’t done that and if for some reason the Iranians did play games and we didn’t get the Americans out and we hadn’t tried to use that leverage, then I can understand the disdain and the criticism here. But this was a sound decision made in the endgame of two separate negotiation tracks.
QUESTION: I’m making no value judgment on the decision. I’m just trying to get you to say what it is, which is very simple, and --
MR KIRBY: I have described what it is for the last 15 minutes. I haven’t used the Latin phrase that you like --
QUESTION: You haven’t for the last – you haven’t – you have not --
MR KIRBY: -- but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t described what happened.
QUESTION: Listen, this happened in January, and this is the first time you’ve ever said flat out that they wouldn’t get the money until the prisoners were released. That took – let’s count it – what, seven months? Why all the beating around the bush if it was such a great and noble decision?
MR KIRBY: The only reason that we’re having this discussion is because of the press coverage, Brad. We’ve said all along --
QUESTION: So evil reporters have made you dredge this up?
MR KIRBY: No, I’ve never called you guys evil. I’ve called you other things, but never evil.
QUESTION: I mean, you can’t blame press coverage because you didn’t say what this was seven months ago.
MR KIRBY: We did describe it seven months ago, Brad. Did we go through the --
QUESTION: You did not say it was contingent – this was contingent on that, and now you’re saying --
MR KIRBY: Did we – we said --
QUESTION: -- flatly out that this was – this payment was contingent on the release of the prisoners.
MR KIRBY: I said – I said it was --
QUESTION: You did not say that in January.
MR KIRBY: I said this was – as I said before, we of course wanted to seek maximum leverage in this case as these two things came together at the same time.
QUESTION: John, you said that – that everyone all along at all points has been completely above board about this, but you would agree that what you’re telling us today represents a new factual disclosure from the Administration, does it not?
MR KIRBY: I certainly would agree that this particular fact is not something that we’ve talked about in the past, but the – but if you go back and look at the press coverage, your own coverage of this when it happened, nobody made any bones about the fact that these two process were coming together at the same time and we took advantage of the opportunity we had with the closure of the nuke deal, with The Hague Tribunal, and with talks to get our Americans back – we took full advantage of that. And I don’t think anybody in the Administration is going to make any apology for having taken advantage of those opportunities to get these Americans home.
QUESTION: And would you agree that a reasonable observer could look upon a situation in which cash is withheld until prisoners are released as something akin to ransom?
MR KIRBY: Well, an observer, whoever he or she may be, can look at this however they want. I’ve described now over the last 10 or 15 minutes what happened and what our thought process was going through that, and I’ll let others decide for themselves.
I got to get going here, guys.
QUESTION: Okay. So we need to – sorry, just before we go, then, can we talk about Rio? Do you want to – and the U.S. swimmers. Do you have any statement you would like to provide? What’s the latest? Are you encouraging Brazilian authorities to let go – let the U.S. swimmers leave the country?
MR KIRBY: Look, I – as much as I know you’d love me to talk specifics on this case, I can’t do that, Justin, out of privacy considerations. I’m just not at liberty to discuss this. This is for the parties to work out. I’ve seen the press coverage of it, but I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to give you much more than that. As I think you know, we have a consulate in Rio; we have trained consular officers there – around the world – and their job is to help us look after the safety and security of Americans overseas. That’s about as far as I can go.
QUESTION: Have they had consular contact?
MR KIRBY: I’m afraid I just can’t go into any more specifics about this case.
QUESTION: Based on the press coverage alone, which is in depth – I mean, these guys apparently – the Brazilians are saying publicly that Lochte and the swimmers lied about being robbed. Does that – are you worried that that is some sort of embarrassment to the U.S. participation in these games and --
MR KIRBY: Again, I’ve seen press coverage of this evolving case, and I’m not going to comment or characterize it one way or the other. I just can’t do that.
I got time for one more.
QUESTION: Beyond the consular angle of this, can you say whether there have been diplomatic conversations between U.S. diplomats on the ground in Rio and their counterparts, their Brazilian counterparts?
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any. I’m not aware.
QUESTION: Please can I get one on Asia?
MR KIRBY: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. The Korean defense ministry spokesperson said earlier today in a press briefing that they are aware that North Korea has started reprocessing their spent fuel into plutonium. Do you have a reaction, and do you have any update on what the U.S. assessment is?
MR KIRBY: I think my colleague talked about this yesterday. I mean, we’ve seen the reports. I’m not in a position to confirm them one way or the other. If true, it’s obviously a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and clearly flies in the face of the DPRK’s international obligations, and we would urge them to fulfill those obligations immediately.
Thanks. Appreciate it, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:36 p.m.)