Daily Press Briefing - October 18, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
1:55 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hi, everybody. Happy Tuesday. Just a couple things at the top and then I’ll take your questions.
Today, Secretary Kerry is hosting a lunch with Vice President Biden, Italian Prime Minister Renzi, and of course, Italian Foreign Minister Gentiloni as part of Prime Minister Renzi’s state visit to Washington. The White House also released a fact sheet on U.S.-Italy cooperation that explores the depth and breadth of our countries’ longstanding friendship and partnership.
You’ve probably seen the statement we released shortly or a little while ago, but we join recent calls by international organizations and UN human rights experts for the immediate release of all U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iraq – or, rather, Iran, excuse me, including Siamak and Baquer Namazi, so that they can return to their families.
We also respectfully underscore the importance of Iran cooperating with the United States to determine the whereabouts of Mr. Robert Levinson, who went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007. And as President Obama stated last January, we will not rest until the Levinson family is whole again.
That’s all I have at the top. Matt.
QUESTION: We’ll get back to the Iran thing --
MR TONER: Yeah.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: This comment, statement that was put out in Kirby’s name earlier --
MR TONER: Yeah, mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- which I’m going to read because it’s very short: “While our concerns about WikiLeaks are longstanding, any suggestion that Secretary Kerry or the State Department were involved in shutting down WikiLeaks is false. Reports that Secretary Kerry had conversations with Ecuadorian officials about this are simply untrue. Period.” That’s not what WikiLeaks has alleged, because as everyone with an internet connection knows, they haven’t been shut down. They’re still publishing these documents.
What they said, what they claimed, was that the Secretary asked Ecuador to stop Assange from publishing Clinton docs when he was in Colombia, so – and that he had a private meeting with – it says Ecuador – presuming that means Ecuadorian officials of some type. So the denial that you guys have denies something that wasn’t alleged, so can you be – can you --
MR TONER: I think we were responding to some tweets that we saw from WikiLeaks.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, these are the tweets that I’m reading.
MR TONER: But let me --
QUESTION: So can you --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- be specific? Or are you able --
MR TONER: Well --
QUESTION: -- to be specific?
MR TONER: I can be specific – I can be --
QUESTION: Because this is kind of a non-denial denial of --
MR TONER: I can – not at all. I’m not – and there’s not – this is not some kind of wordplay or we’re trying to be coy in any way, shape, or form.
There were some rumors circulating out there that many of us saw today about the – whether Secretary Kerry had leaned on or had engaged with President Correa in Ecuador – or I think when he was in Colombia, frankly, about our concerns about WikiLeaks and meddling with regards to emails regarding the presidential campaign. That’s just not true. He didn’t raise that. He didn’t even engage with President Correa when he was on the ground in Colombia; they had no meeting. Neither – no bilat, no – nothing on the margins, so that – there was no – there just was no meeting. They didn’t discuss any of this stuff.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, speaking from the – all right, that’s more specific.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: But you understand, maybe, why the initial denial raises more question than it answers, because it does – did not address the primary allegation. Did – even if it wasn’t Secretary Kerry, has the United States leaned on, in your words, the Ecuadorians through President Correa or through anyone else to get – to try to stop the publication of these documents?
MR TONER: I can only speak to – about the State Department.
QUESTION: Okay, just --
MR TONER: And they have not – no one in the State Department has attempted to engage with the Ecuadorian Government on this particular matter. On this matter. Sorry. I’m not trying to be coy again.
QUESTION: All right, and then to the – the other allegation was that the U.S. was somehow involved in getting the Ecuadorians to shut down Mr. Assange’s internet access in the Ecuadorian embassy. One, is that true?
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: And secondly, does that – does the Administration, whether it’s true or not – and you say it’s not – does the Administration believe that shutting down Mr. Assange’s access to the internet would have the effect of preventing WikiLeaks from publishing these documents?
MR TONER: Probably not.
QUESTION: So it would be – so it wouldn’t be worth your while? Is that why you --
MR TONER: It’s just not something – I mean, I’m not going to speak to – I mean, we weren’t involved in this. It wasn’t our – it was – we had no involvement in any way, shape, or form in trying to shut down Mr. Assange’s access to the internet. Your further question about whether – why not – I don’t know what you’re – where you’re driving at with that. You’re saying why wouldn’t we? Or would this not affect him? You had a follow-up question.
QUESTION: No, do you think that shutting down – that if, for whatever reason, the Ecuadorians took away his internet access, that that would stop WikiLeaks from publishing?
MR TONER: I mean, probably not. I mean, he would have --
QUESTION: Probably – I mean --
MR TONER: No, I mean, he would have --
QUESTION: -- certainly not, because this happened and WikiLeaks continues to publish.
MR TONER: -- he would have contact. Exactly, exactly, yes.
QUESTION: So it is not, then, an Administration goal to try to get – to try to stop WikiLeaks from publishing these emails. Is that correct?
MR TONER: Again, we’ve – our concerns about WikiLeaks and in particular Mr. Assange are well known, but we did not have any involvement in either shutting down his internet or any involvement with the Ecuadorian Government in trying to take action against WikiLeaks or Assange.
QUESTION: Okay, but you – if I understand that --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- when – if – do you believe that the publishing of these – of this material by WikiLeaks is interference in the election process?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, yes. I mean, we do consider what WikiLeaks does, which is illegally obtain email correspondence and then publicize it or release it publicly – this didn’t begin this past month or so. I mean, we’re well aware back in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a large amount of State Department email.
QUESTION: Okay. Right. So --
MR TONER: Or rather cables.
QUESTION: So you’re saying that the Administration’s concern about WikiLeaks and what it’s doing is the same as --
MR TONER: Exactly.
QUESTION: It is the same now as it was back then when they --
MR TONER: Exactly, exactly.
QUESTION: -- back when they first started.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: So if that it’s – it is a concern, why is it wrong for WikiLeaks to think that you are trying to shut them down?
MR TONER: Again, I can’t speak on behalf of WikiLeaks, but certainly --
QUESTION: Well, no, speak on behalf of the Administration. Why – if you are concerned and think that what they’re doing is – I think what you said was “illegal” --
MR TONER: We think what they’re – what they’re doing is illegal. They are stealing information and – previously, government information, and we’ve made that very clear in our public denunciation before prior to that --
QUESTION: Well, okay.
MR TONER: -- when they released the cables.
QUESTION: I understand that that’s your position, but that’s not --
MR TONER: But you’re asking me why --
QUESTION: That’s actually not what has happened here. They didn’t actually steal anything. They were given this stuff, like in the case of the original – the State Department documents. Those weren’t taken by WikiLeaks. They were --
MR TONER: They were.
QUESTION: They were given – and the act of giving --
MR TONER: They were releasing confidential government information. But you’re asking me – your particular question was with regard to why shouldn’t WikiLeaks believe we were behind this? Ask WikiLeaks. I don’t know.
QUESTION: Okay, I – and I will --
MR TONER: We weren’t.
QUESTION: I mean, I think --
MR TONER: We weren’t. They may believe other – they may believe otherwise and that’s --
QUESTION: Right, but I --
MR TONER: I’m not going to --
QUESTION: Can we get to --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: And I’ll stop after this.
MR TONER: Of course, yeah.
QUESTION: But I mean, why is it that you think what they’re doing is illegal when they haven’t actually stolen this information? They have received it from a third party, ostensibly, and are publishing it in what they say is the same manner that a news organization would put out leaked information that they had received.
MR TONER: We view any unauthorized disclosure of classified information by WikiLeaks as harmful. It has harmful implications to the lives of identified individuals in some of those cables and other documents that they’ve released. We’ve talked about this many times over, that they put lives at risk by releasing that information.
QUESTION: Yeah, but – you’re – so you’re making the argument that these new emails, these Podesta emails are classified in some way?
MR TONER: Not in any way. I’m not trying to say that. I’m – you’re – so I’m not trying to – I’m talking about WikiLeaks’ initial --
QUESTION: You’re saying – you said – correct me if I’m wrong. You said that your concern is the same now as it was back then, back when they were publishing the State Department cables, and you’re talking about that that was – there was classified information. But you’re not making – are you making the – trying to make the case that the campaign emails are classified?
MR TONER: I’m only making the case that – I’m only making – I’m only making the case that this is confidential correspondence in confidence. I won’t use the State Department term for classified information, but this is information like medical records, like legal documents, I mean, like financial documents that is information exchanged in confidence between two parties or between a party and a business or a medical professional or a lawyer. And we believe that that information should be held in confidence. There’s a reason why it is in confidence.
QUESTION: So --
MR TONER: So for WikiLeaks – certainly what they did in terms of releasing State Department cables back in 2010 did put lives at risk. We’ve talked about this length at the time.
QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s difficult to make that argument --
MR TONER: But I’m saying that --
QUESTION: -- with this latest stuff, is it not?
MR TONER: I understand that, but I’m just – but I’m – my point is that this is still private information between individuals or a campaign or whatever that wasn’t meant to be released publicly. So for them to release it publicly we believe is a breach.
QUESTION: Would that hold true for any campaign or for any correspondence between any two people?
MR TONER: Of course. There’s no – I’m not trying to politicize this in any way, shape, or form.
MR TONER: And let me be very clear about that.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
QUESTION: If you could just clarify something on this.
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Is there a belief that this last batch that was leaked was provided by the Russian Government to WikiLeaks?
MR TONER: I can’t speak to that.
QUESTION: Because those accusations are being made.
MR TONER: I’m aware of those allegations, yeah.
QUESTION: They are saying that there was a good period where there were no leaks, so you believe that they were provided by the Russians?
MR TONER: I just can’t speak to that. I’m aware of the allegations out there. I know others have spoken to that.
QUESTION: But you’re not making that accusation?
MR TONER: I’m not making that accusation here today about that.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: So I saw your statement on – expressing deep concern about the jailing of the father, son – the Namazis.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: Has there been any kind of contact between John Kerry and the foreign minister from Iran on this issue? What kind --
MR TONER: You’re talking about within – sorry. You’re talking about – I mean, since we just found out that this – you’re talking about post-sentencing, just to clarify.
QUESTION: Correct, yeah. Since the sentencing, has there been contact --
MR TONER: No. We just found out about the sentencing or reports of the sentencing earlier today, so no, I’m not aware of any correspondence between the Secretary and --
QUESTION: Is he planning on talking to him?
MR TONER: Well, again, I don’t know that a call is imminent. What I can say is that whenever he speaks to his Iranian counterpart, he raises our concerns about detained American citizens in Iran, and that includes the Namazis.
QUESTION: So this move by the Iranians to go ahead and sentence the father and son, it also comes at a time when the U.S. is trying to lobby on behalf of Iran in west – in European countries on banks easing
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- sanctions and – or banks doing more business. I mean, do you think a move like this is --
MR TONER: Helpful?
QUESTION: -- helpful or gives confidence that if you are doing business in Iran --
MR TONER: I mean, President Obama spoke to this much more eloquently and powerfully than I could ever attempt to, but he said the same thing, is that Iran by its behavior and some of its actions needs to be aware that they are affecting the confidence that outside investors, companies, corporations have in investing in Iran. And that’s just a reality. It’s not – I mean – and that’s not – that doesn’t just extend to the treatment of certainly American citizens, but other dual nationals as well, but it extends beyond that in some of their continued behavior in the region that is less than constructive.
QUESTION: Was there any effort made by the U.S. before this – the sentencing to get the Namazis released? Namazi – the son was detained before – about the time of the release of the other prisoners.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Was any attempt – what attempts were made to try to get him released? And if I remember that he was not included in that deal.
MR TONER: No, I don’t believe so. I would, frankly, have to check and get more granularity on all along what our efforts have been – excuse me – to engage on his release. I can only say that we have continually raised the plight of all U.S. citizens who we believe are unjustly detained by the Iranian authorities, and the Namazis are no exception. And as I said in the statement, but we’re especially concerned about his father, who has had some health issues and we believe should be released immediately.
Yeah. Hey, Barbara.
QUESTION: Hi. Can I ask --
QUESTION: Staying on Iran?
QUESTION: No, it’s Afghanistan again.
QUESTION: I was wondering, just briefly on this --
MR TONER: Of course. Yeah.
QUESTION: So the last line, or the last paragraph of the statement, you respect – quote-unquote, “respectfully underscore the importance” – I’m just curious about the use of the word, repeatedly in these statements like this, “respectfully.” Why? Do you think that Iran is treating you guys with respect, the respect that the United States of America deserves? Why is it that – I mean, they are taking your sailors prisoner, their allies in Yemen are firing missiles at U.S. naval ships, and you guys keep saying you respectfully ask the Iranian Government for assistance in finding Mr. Levinson. What – can you explain why you think that they’re deserving of your respect?
MR TONER: Well, look, adverbs aside, what we’re trying to underscore here is that Iran made a commitment that it would help us get to the bottom of either Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts or what happened to him. And thus far they haven’t lived up to that. And so I recognize your point, but we continue to make that point to the Iranian authorities that they did pledge to help us determine his whereabouts. And so we always make that point in any statement or in any exchange that we have with the Iranian Government.
QUESTION: Yeah, I get that.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: But do you think that they’re treating you with – that the Iranian Government, the judiciary system, its military, its executive, its top leader, are treating the United States with the respect that it deserves?
MR TONER: I’m – I’ll refrain from giving a comprehensive response to that. But I think you’re correct in stating that parts of the Iranian Government are not necessarily acting in a respectful way towards the United States.
QUESTION: Well, Matt, can I pick up on that?
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: I mean, aside from the kind of qualitative judgments on respect, do you think that the Iranians have been true to their promise to reopen the file and try and give you information about his whereabouts? Have you found any productivity of that pledge?
MR TONER: Elise, I’ll just say that it wouldn’t have been in the statement if we didn’t believe that we --
QUESTION: So I take that as a --
MR TONER: -- were still owed more information about his whereabouts.
QUESTION: So I take that as a no?
MR TONER: Yes. (Laughter.) Take it as a no.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on this?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Do you feel that there is – that the U.S. has lost leverage on the issue of U.S. and dual citizens jailed by Iran since the Iran nuclear talks finished and since your deal on the other prisoners – I mean, what leverage do you have over these citizens that have been jailed?
MR TONER: Well, look, I want to challenge the assertion that we were ever using the Iran nuclear deal as a form of leverage to release our citizens.
QUESTION: Well, they were an opportunity in which you could raise the issue.
MR TONER: It was an opportunity, and we talked about that. It allowed us to have regular engagement with senior members of the Iraqi Government; most importantly Foreign Minister Zarif. But --
QUESTION: Iranian Government.
MR TONER: Did I – what did I say?
MR TONER: Do I keep – I apologize. Thank you, Matt.
QUESTION: There is something going on in Iraq. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: The Iranian Government. It allowed us to have contacts with the Iranian Government that helped us move this process forward. That said, we’re going to keep, as we have ongoing engagement with the Iranian Government, we’re going to continue to push for the release of these detainees. It’s something that’s always, as I said, something that Secretary Kerry always raises emphatically when he has meetings with his counterpart.
QUESTION: Did he raise it on Saturday?
MR TONER: I apologize, I wasn’t there. So I don’t know. I assume he did.
QUESTION: Just a couple of questions about Afghanistan. Your response to the resumption of the peace talks – or at least early feelers at it anyway between the Afghans and the Taliban in Qatar – is there new possibilities for some progress on that? Is that how you set it?
MR TONER: You’re talking about, of course, the stories that emerged overnight about renewed peace talks. So I’m not going to speak about what our role may or may not be with regard to this new initiative. But as we made clear before, we believe that a peace accord is really the primary or the only pathway to ensuring peace and stability long term in Afghanistan. So we have supported and continue to support an Afghan-led, an Afghan-owned process for negotiated resolution to the conflict there. And we’re committed to promoting that as much as we can.
QUESTION: And I mean – but the talks broke off after the killing of – or after the information that Mullah Omar was dead, and divisions within the Taliban. Is there any indication recently that the Taliban are interested in a negotiated solution or returning to the talks?
MR TONER: Given the sensitivity of the issue, I’m just not going to speak to where we might be in the process. I just can’t offer any more details, I apologize. Please.
QUESTION: Thanks. Mosul.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Afghanistan?
MR TONER: Sure. We can stay on Afghanistan if that’s okay. Why don’t we do these two and I’ll get to you?
MR TONER: Sorry.
QUESTION: You don’t support – do you support these kinds of peace talks, in which U.S. is not --
MR TONER: I think I just said that we support Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process to resolve the issues – the remaining issues – that will end this conflict in Afghanistan. So yes, we do. We support --
QUESTION: My question was: Do you support the peace talks in which U.S. is not part of it?
QUESTION: Apparently the U.S. is part of it.
MR TONER: (Laughter.) Again, I want to be very careful about how I describe our role, except to say that we are supportive of a process. But we’ve always been clear that fundamentally this needs to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, so we’re not looking to engineer this, we’re not looking to supervise this in any way, shape, or form. This is something the Afghan Government and the Taliban would have to take on their own.
QUESTION: And today President Ghani in Kabul said that the situation in Afghanistan is determined by the U.S. interest in the region.
MR TONER: Is – is what by the --
QUESTION: U.S. interest --
MR TONER: No, no – is determined?
QUESTION: Yeah, determined --
MR TONER: Okay, thank you.
QUESTION: -- by U.S. interest in South Asia, Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan, and also U.S. and Pakistan’s relationship with India, which he says is very unfortunate. What do you have to say on that?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, as much as regional dynamics play into any country’s domestic situation, there’s an element of truth to that, which is why we’re always working hard to push Pakistan to go after those terrorist groups that seek safe haven on their soil and territory, rather. And we’re pushing for more dialogue between Pakistan and India, which we believe will help reduce tensions in the region. And we’ve seen India play a more supportive role with regard to Afghanistan and support for the Afghan Government. But whenever you look at any situation like you have, any conflict like you have, in Afghanistan, certainly there’s a range of different regional dynamics that play into it. It’s just a matter of fact. But our goal is to continue to support the Afghan military as it steps up its fight against the Taliban and to support the Afghan Government as it pushes much-needed reforms in the economy and the democratic system. And then ultimately, as we’ve said, we do support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have a --
MR TONER: Please, go ahead.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: You must have seen news reports that India has partially removed restrictions from some of the U.S. NGOs, and I think Secretary Kerry had raised this issue with his Indian counterpart. What is your reaction to that?
MR TONER: Well, we would certainly welcome and do welcome any actions by government that support and strengthen civil society. I’d refer you to the Government of India with respect to any specific actions that have been taken regarding the NGOs in India. But as we – as you know, we want to see a strong, healthy, civil society throughout the world, and that certainly extends to India, which is a strong democracy. We believe that a strong and vibrant civil society only strengthens that democracy, so --
QUESTION: I agree, but there have been news reports coming out the – that some of these NGOs don’t follow the rule of – rules and regulations in India itself, including the tax laws. What is your – about – saying about these NGOs that should they follow or shouldn’t they follow the rules of the land?
MR TONER: Well, again, I --
QUESTION: Because they are issued --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- just simple notices about following these tax laws – where the money is coming from, where the money is going to.
MR TONER: I think that in general, as I said, we support the work, the very good work of many of these NGOs that they play in strengthening civil society, but certainly that’s a matter for the Government of India to work with these NGOs on with regard to taxes and other regulations that they need to comply with on the ground.
QUESTION: Yeah, but no one disagrees with the good – great work that these NGOs have been doing, but isn’t it an interference in India’s internal affairs when you ask Indian Government to – or question to lift restrictions or don’t take any actions and don’t follow the laws there?
MR TONER: Again, we’re very clear, not just with respect to India, but with many countries around the world, about our support for NGOs and the important role that they play in any democratic society. And insofar as we push for a more welcoming environment for these NGOs to work in – that’s just the way we work. Please.
QUESTION: I have one final one.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Okay. India’s Essar Oil has been taken over by Russia’s Rosneft, in the U.S. dollar $12.9 billion deal. Does this deal don’t follow the U.S. sanctions on the Russian firm?
MR TONER: I don’t think we see any violation of any U.S.-EU sanctions stemming from this deal. We’ve seen the reports in general about this oil deal. I’d refer you to the governments of India and Russia.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Please. You had a question and then I swear I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: I would like to ask a question about Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Islamist leaders, that he has traveled to United State. First of all, do you think that still his name will be moved from the UN blacklist?
MR TONER: He did – I’m sorry. What did he do? He traveled to United States?
QUESTION: To United State for discussion, something about the peace process. Is that true? If it’s true, which topic you will discuss and when he will arrive to United State?
MR TONER: Yeah, my apologies. I don’t have any details. I’ll have to take the question.
MR TONER: Thanks. Please.
QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait. Did he come or not?
MR TONER: I don’t know. I can’t confirm it.
QUESTION: That would be --
MR TONER: It would be a big deal, I know.
QUESTION: But are you considering --
MR TONER: I don’t know --
QUESTION: -- lifting travel restrictions on him?
MR TONER: I don’t believe so. That’s why I took the question. I’m not aware of anything about his visit --
MR TONER: -- or his travel or anything. Let me be very clear.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: About the battle to retake Mosul, Josh Earnest has said, “They – meaning ISIL – are killing civilians all the time, so the idea that somehow the Iraqi Security Forces should delay this operation because of their concern about the humanitarian situation in Mosul, that doesn’t make sense,” end quote. The U.S. view for eastern Aleppo, as I understand it, is that going after terrorists there is not worth --
MR TONER: I apologize.
QUESTION: Should I start over?
MR TONER: No, no, no. That’s okay. I was distracted by that. But you’re talking about Mosul, or are you talking about Aleppo?
QUESTION: Mosul. Mosul and I also have a question about --
MR TONER: Okay. That’s why I was confused. You seem to be referring --
QUESTION: Yes. Sorry.
MR TONER: Okay. Go ahead. Start again. I apologize.
QUESTION: So – and Josh Earnest said this --
MR TONER: Yes. About --
QUESTION: – that they --
MR TONER: Aleppo?
QUESTION: About Mosul.
MR TONER: About Mosul. Okay, thank you.
QUESTION: About Mosul, yes. He said this: “They, ISIL, are killing civilians all the time, so the idea that somehow the Iraqi Security Forces should delay this operation because of their concern about the humanitarian situation in Mosul, that doesn’t make sense,” end quote. The U.S. view for eastern Aleppo, as I understand it, is that going after terrorists there is not worth the suffering of civilians. Why the difference in U.S. reaction or approach, please?
MR TONER: Well, I’m not going to certainly reinterpret or parse Josh’s words about Mosul. I think with respect to Mosul, as with Aleppo, there’s an urgency to the situation on the ground there. I think what he may have been talking about with regard to an offensive to retake Mosul is that, as with any military offensive, it requires a lot of prudent planning and coordination to make sure that it’s a success. And insofar as we’re aware that civilians’ lives are at risk in Mosul – and that’s been well documented with, for example, with respect to Tikrit and Ramadi and other places that have been liberated – that ISIL shows no hesitation to use civilians as shields to booby-trap houses, to place mines. You name it, they’re willing to do it, and with no regard for the safety of civilians.
But I think what we’re talking about is a military operation the size and scale and scope of the effort to liberate Mosul requires a good deal of prudent planning to make sure it’s a success. And one of the aspects of that – and I talked at length about it yesterday, so I don’t want to necessarily go over it again – is how do we deal with and how do we prepare ourselves to deal with the inevitable humanitarian effects of this operation. And I talked a lot yesterday about working with local governments, and how the Iraqi Government is coordinating with regional governments on the ground and with police forces and other security forces to ensure that there’s a system in place to deal with those civilians who might be – might have to flee the violence in Mosul.
Now with regard to your question about Aleppo, you’re saying that why is there --
QUESTION: The difference of --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- in U.S. reaction between these two cases (inaudible).
MR TONER: I think our serious concern about the regime’s conduct in Aleppo – and certainly Russia is aiding the regime in its actions around Aleppo – is what we view as continued bombardment and airstrikes against civilian populations and civilian centers and civilian infrastructure. We don’t see them going after Nusrah or Daesh. They seem to be targeting – at least arguably, they’re targeting moderate Syrian opposition, but the fact of the matter is we’ve seen too many – far too many – civilian deaths as a result.
QUESTION: Is that correct to say one of the differences in U.S. reaction is that in eastern Aleppo terrorists are mixed with rebels whom the U.S. supports? Is that the difference?
MR TONER: Sorry. One more time. That in Aleppo --
QUESTION: Is that correct to say the difference in U.S. reaction in – toward what’s happening in one city and the other is the fact that in eastern Aleppo terrorists are mixed with rebels whom the U.S. supports?
MR TONER: Well, not really. Again, we’ve talked about the complex situation in Aleppo. It’s a fact that in some areas of Aleppo there was intermingling with – between members of the opposition and al-Nusrah. And frankly, one of the goals that would have been achievable, had we been able to implement fully the agreement that we reached in Geneva on September 9th, would have been a way to separate these groups and then to focus on going after Nusrah.
Please. Last question.
QUESTION: Yes. The U.S. Government wants Russia and Syria to stop operations in eastern Aleppo.
MR TONER: Yeah, we can. I promise, I – yeah.
QUESTION: Can we --
QUESTION: The U.S. Government wants --
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. The U.S. Government wants Russia and Syria to stop operations in eastern Aleppo because of the humanitarian catastrophe there. Where is that line in civilian suffering in Mosul, where you would say it – you need to stop operations?
MR TONER: Okay. I mean, I --
QUESTION: Is there --
MR TONER: I mean, I see you’re trying to conflate the two. Look, I mean, first of all, we are working in a supporting capacity, supportive capacity. It’s the Iraqi Government and it’s Iraqi Security Forces that are carrying out the operation in Mosul, and that is to go after and destroy Daesh, drive it out of Mosul. It’s been very successful in doing so throughout the other regions of the country and cities in the country.
Frankly, we haven’t seen that in – with respect to Syria. What we’ve seen is the regime carry out continued fighting against moderate Syrian opposition forces and not really target, in any meaningful way, Daesh or Nusrah. And that’s our focus. That’s what we are supporting in our efforts. But we haven’t seen it.
QUESTION: Can you just give us a quick update of what is going on in the battle of Mosul? I also asked some figures yesterday. There were figures that were being thrown around that – about the size of a U.S. force and the brigade size --
MR TONER: Yeah. I’m sorry we didn’t get those to you.
QUESTION: -- to 5,000. I think there were some troops added yesterday by the Pentagon. If you could update us on what’s going on.
MR TONER: Sure. I apologize that we don’t have the numbers for you. I mean, I don’t have – and – I don’t have a kind of blow-by-blow description of the current battlefield.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, I don’t need blow by blow --
MR TONER: And that’s not really my role to give an assessment.
QUESTION: -- but about your role.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: It is an advisory role.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: You’re saying that command and control is the Iraqis, owned by the Iraqis. I want to know --
MR TONER: Right. And I talked a lot yesterday about some of the things that we’re doing in terms of planning on all aspects of this campaign – military, diplomatic, humanitarian, governance – that’s been going on for some six months now in order to have a plan in place that allows us to deal with inevitably what is going to be a number of citizen civilians who are fleeing the violence, who are fleeing the fighting, and how we best – working with, obviously, the Iraqi Government, who has taken the lead on this – to absorb and to ensure that these people are secure and safe.
At the same time – and we talked about this yesterday – and we’ve set up screening facilities, if you will, that we can do security screenings. So not only so that we can ensure that the civilians, the legitimate civilians fleeing the violence are taken care of, but also that if any efforts are made by ISIL or Daesh fighters to mix in or intermingle, we’ll be able to – hopefully to find them out.
QUESTION: And my final question on that.
MR TONER: Yes, please.
QUESTION: There’s a conference in Paris --
MR TONER: Yes.
MR TONER: Well, you’re right. He’s going to – Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken is going to be in Paris October 20th to 21st. There’s a ministerial meeting there, hosted by the French ministry of foreign affairs, and the purpose is to discuss post-ISIL or post-Daesh stabilization efforts, humanitarian relief for those affected by the Mosul liberation. And he’ll be joined by Brett McGurk, who is the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. And I think on the margins, he’ll have various meetings with French and other officials.
QUESTION: I have another Mosul question.
QUESTION: Can you say how many Iranians are taking part in this operation that the U.S. is advising?
MR TONER: I cannot.
QUESTION: And then can you make a distinction between Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Soleimani IRGC?
MR TONER: That would be a question I think better directed to the Pentagon.
QUESTION: Can we have a question in the back?
MR TONER: Oh yeah. I’m sorry, Catherine. Are we – guys, I can only – I apologize for this, but I can only take a couple more questions.
QUESTION: Question from the back, please?
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I just need some help with some timing issues. Based on the FBI summaries, Patrick Kennedy was trying to negotiate changes to the classified emails in May of 2015. Is that your understanding?
MR TONER: I believe that --
QUESTION: So my question --
MR TONER: No, no. Hold on, hold on.
QUESTION: Okay. All right.
MR TONER: So I believe that we released the document that was upgraded in May of 2015. So while I don’t have a date, specific date, of when this phone call took place – I just don’t have it --
QUESTION: So the --
MR TONER: Sorry. Let me finish.
QUESTION: All right. Go ahead.
MR TONER: It was before that, obviously.
QUESTION: Okay. All right. Why was Patrick Kennedy trying to make changes to the classification of the emails after Congress issued a subpoena and a retention order on March 4th of 2015?
MR TONER: I’m not sure I understand the connection.
QUESTION: Trying to change the emails after March 4th 2015 would, in effect, change or alter the evidence that had been requested by Congress.
MR TONER: So first of all, these were documents for public release through the FOIA process, not necessarily what we shared with Congress. Secondly --
QUESTION: But wouldn’t – but isn’t the same classification applied for the public document versus what is supplied to Congress?
MR TONER: But secondly – let me finish. Secondly – secondly, with respect to all of the emails that we cleared for publication – not just this one – we went through all of them to make sure that they didn’t require some kind of upgrade in classification. And as we’ve said repeatedly, that was a discussion that we had with many elements of the interagency, and sometimes there were disagreements on the level of classification.
QUESTION: Okay, okay. Just so I’m clear, you are not disputing that Patrick Kennedy was trying to renegotiate the classification of the Clinton emails after Congress issued a subpoena and a retention order?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not sure what – that a subpoena and a retention order would have changed our responsibility in releasing these documents publicly, which we were under court order to do, to ensure that where they needed to be redacted, they were redacted. That’s just a --
QUESTION: But is the – it’s a --
MR TONER: I don’t see the connection. I apologize, I --
QUESTION: It’s – yeah.
MR TONER: Maybe I’m --
QUESTION: It’s the classification – it’s --
MR TONER: My – I --
QUESTION: Just – could I just finish, please?
MR TONER: I never went to law school, so --
QUESTION: Neither did I, fortunately.
MR TONER: -- maybe that’s the problem here.
QUESTION: So it’s a classification issue, though? Of course, there’s a big difference between marking a hundred documents classified versus determining that they’re unclassified. That’s the issue. The issue is that Kennedy was trying to renegotiate the classification of the emails after a preservation order --
MR TONER: Look --
QUESTION: -- and after a Congressional subpoena --
MR TONER: The issue is that --
QUESTION: -- which in effect alters the evidence.
MR TONER: -- Pat Kennedy, as did others, but Pat who has – Pat Kennedy, who has responsibility for classification authority within the State Department, reached out to a colleague counterpart in the FBI to talk about the rationale behind their decision, their request to upgrade an email classification.
QUESTION: And the way it was represented, actually – anyway, in these transcripts --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- was not that he called to clarify, was that specifically – I mean, not even getting into the idea of a quid pro quo or any of that stuff – that specifically he was looking to get the classification changed as opposed to just questioning the – the rationale behind it. I think there is a --
MR TONER: Well, I mean --
QUESTION: There – it’s – there’s a big distinction there, Mark. Come on.
MR TONER: I’m not sure I understand that distinction. I mean, he --
QUESTION: Yeah, of course there is.
MR TONER: He had his own --
QUESTION: There’s a difference between --
MR TONER: He had his own --
QUESTION: -- me asking you why you did it --
MR TONER: He had his own --
QUESTION: -- and asking you not to do that.
MR TONER: He had his own belief on what level this should be classified at. And that wasn’t just his own belief; it was our own considered, as a department, opinion about the classification level of that document. So for him to call or reach out to another agency and ask them what their reasoning was, and yes, indeed, maybe even question it, is not out of line. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: But why did he want it to be unclassified? That’s the main question that she was asking before. What was the purpose of it – what was his main desire to have it be unclassified?
MR TONER: Well, again, it’s whether you upgrade or not the classification level of these emails before you make them public. We always operated under the assumption or the – not the assumption, but we always operated under the mindset that we wanted to make as much possible public as we could. I think that was the intent behind the FOIA request. So when we looked at these, we did look at what areas or what parts or portions of these emails should be redacted, and we wanted to make certain that there was a solid rationale, legally and otherwise, behind these upgrades.
QUESTION: So when – so when people --
QUESTION: So you could have --
QUESTION: -- accuse Kennedy of trying to minimize the amount of classified content that was in the Clinton email servers through this action, your response is that his actual desire was to make sure that the public has as much information as it’s owed through Freedom of Information Act request?
MR TONER: It’s not – so there’s two responses to that, and one was: We – we’ve certainly looked at all of these emails because we wanted to ensure that information that should be upgraded didn’t get out publicly. So, I mean, it’s just – it’s not a simple – I’m not trying to say that we’re all – we would have just released them all publicly without any kind of upgrade; we did look at them very closely. We have a process, we devoted resources to looking at each one of these emails and every one of these 55,000 pages to ensure that --
QUESTION: But could you – could we go back to Iraq --
QUESTION: To – no --
QUESTION: -- because we didn’t have any --
QUESTION: Actually, no we can’t.
QUESTION: Could he just finish one question on the emails --
QUESTION: I got --
QUESTION: -- since this is about the special employees (inaudible)?
MR TONER: I’ll take about two more questions, okay, guys?
QUESTION: Okay, I have (inaudible) about this.
MR TONER: Because I have some place to be.
QUESTION: If I could, I wrote you earlier about this in the --
MR TONER: I appreciate that.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Thank you very much.
MR TONER: I’m glad that you write to us. Please, Matt.
QUESTION: Okay, in it – in --
MR TONER: Why don’t you go? Matt.
QUESTION: These are very, very brief. One, are you saying that even if Pat Kennedy had won this dispute, that this information would still have been redacted, but just not because it was classified? It would’ve been --
MR TONER: I honestly can’t speak to --
QUESTION: And --
MR TONER: -- whether it would have been redacted at all or whether it would have been released publicly. I’m suspecting that it would have been redacted in some form --
MR TONER: -- but just not to the level --
QUESTION: But so you disagree --
MR TONER: -- or upgraded to the level.
QUESTION: -- or you reject the characterization in the 302 – 302 --
MR TONER: 302, yeah.
QUESTION: -- that if he had won his fight with the FBI on this – on behalf of the department, this email never would have seen the light of day; it would have been thrown into the basement?
MR TONER: And that’s an assertion --
QUESTION: You just – you disagree? You’re saying that.
MR TONER: Absolutely disagree with that.
QUESTION: All right. And then the second thing is: Do you still disagree? Do you still think – does the department still think that this was wrongly classified?
MR TONER: I think at the end of the day we accepted the FBI’s --
QUESTION: Okay, so you don’t. You agree with the FBI?
MR TONER: I mean, it’s redacted according to the FBI’s upgrade.
MR TONER: Please, in the back, Catherine. I’ll answer your question.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you very much. The Intelligence Community inspector general said in his interview that a number of special employees were hired to work in the FOIA office and this raised significant concerns among the career people in the State Department. That’s what the document says. At least one of the special employees worked for Williams & Connolly. Who approved the hires? Was it Kennedy? Who got them clearances? And is it a conflict of interest to have a lawyer working in the FOIA office handling Hillary Clinton’s emails, while the same firm ultimately represents her in this case?
MR TONER: Sure. Let me to try to quickly answer your questions. So the department did hire additional personnel, and that included attorneys, to assist it with a broad range of oversight matters related to this FOIA process.
QUESTION: Did Kennedy approve those hires?
MR TONER: So let me finish. These attorneys are appointed under either a Schedule A or the federal personnel system – of rather, the Schedule A of the federal personnel system, or a limited term appointee, neither of which would require any kind of advertisement. I don’t – I can’t speak to whether Pat Kennedy himself would have hired these individuals. I don’t believe that’s necessarily the case. But we have the utmost confidence that these attorneys performed to the highest professional and ethical standards, and that includes --
QUESTION: So the state --
MR TONER: -- in connection with the review and release of Secretary Clinton’s emails. And your question was about some kind of conflict of interest.
QUESTION: That’s correct, with Kate Duval in particular.
MR TONER: So – right, of Williams & Connolly. So – and we’ve talked about this before. The mere fact of previously working at a – what is a very large law firm does not in and of itself constitute a conflict of interest. Williams & Connolly, as I said, is a very large firm and we are not aware of any counsel working on Clinton-related oversight matters at the department that they did so prior to joining the department.
QUESTION: All I want is --
MR TONER: So there’s no conflict of interest there.
QUESTION: All I – the Inspector General told the FBI that these hires, quote, “created a conflict of interest,” – “appeared to create a conflict of interest. Particularly Kate Duvall who was possibly involved in the lowest” – pardon me – “possibly involved in the Lois Lerner Internal Revenue Service situation.” But the State Department’s position is there was no conflict?
MR TONER: There was no conflict of interest.
QUESTION: Keep driving; nothing to see here.
MR TONER: They – again – and let me just say, since you’ve named her: Kate Duvall is an exceptional professional, and the department and the Secretary of State had full trust and have full trust and confidence in her work at the department.
QUESTION: She’s still working here? I thought she left.
MR TONER: No, I said “had” --
QUESTION: Yeah, I thought so.
MR TONER: -- sorry – full trust and confidence.
QUESTION: She’s gone.
MR TONER: We also – and again, I’ll just state it one more time that Williams & Connolly is a large law firm. There’s no conflict of interest if lawyers working for Williams & Connolly, but were not working on issues related to Secretary Clinton’s --
QUESTION: But it says here she was working in the FOIA office reviewing the emails.
MR TONER: No, but I’m saying she was --
MR TONER: -- when she was here, she was specifically hired, as were other lawyers, on oversight matters related to these emails. And there was a legal component to these emails and their release. And certainly we wanted legal oversight.
QUESTION: Well, just saying – just stating the obvious fact that Williams & Connolly is a large law firm does not necessarily mean that there’s absolutely no way there was a conflict of interest.
MR TONER: I said we’re not aware that any – that either of these individuals --
QUESTION: You’re not aware of --
MR TONER: Well, we certainly vetted them.
QUESTION: But I mean, you’re --
MR TONER: Do you – it’s not like we just, like --
QUESTION: No, I know. But the question is --
MR TONER: -- drove down the street and said, “Hey” --
QUESTION: -- the question is at least it gives an appearance – it could give the appearance – at least an appearance of a conflict of interest and your response is Williams and Connolly is a large law firm?
MR TONER: All I’m saying, Matt, is that it is possible to work at Williams & Connolly --
MR TONER: -- and not have a conflict of interest --
MR TONER: -- but then, if you then go and work on Clinton --
QUESTION: But it’s also – but it’s not --
QUESTION: Actually, is it really possible? I mean, this isn’t an indictment on her specifically, but isn’t any – wouldn’t you say that any employee that is – any person that’s working is – that’s also an employee of the law firm that Hillary Clinton’s – was representing her --
MR TONER: Well, wait a second. They weren’t at the same time. I mean, let’s be very clear here.
QUESTION: David Kendall’s been her lawyer for a thousand years.
MR TONER: They weren’t – I mean, they were --
QUESTION: Did she leave Williams & Connolly to come to the State Department?
MR TONER: Yes. Yes, okay.
QUESTION: Okay, well --
MR TONER: Yes. Yes.
QUESTION: So that doesn’t --
MR TONER: So it wasn’t like they were working --
QUESTION: I mean, can’t you just at least acknowledge the appearance of impropriety? You don’t think that there is any reason that anybody should question that there’s a conflict of interest there?
MR TONER: Let’s put it this way – let’s put it this way. I think with respect to Pat Kennedy, with respect to this, I think there’s enough politicization, if I could put it that way --
QUESTION: Actually, actually --
MR TONER: -- politicizing the role of these individuals, given the current campaign season here that --
QUESTION: Well --
MR TONER: -- you don’t need me to lend one way or the other --
QUESTION: Actually, that’s – respectfully --
MR TONER: -- my opinion.
QUESTION: Well, Mark --
QUESTION: Respectfully, I think to dismiss --
MR TONER: All I’m trying to do here is say that we don’t believe there was any conflict of interest with these individuals, that it’s possible to work for a law firm and then come to work for the State Department on a different issue, and not have a conflict of interest.
QUESTION: Okay, but respectfully, to dismiss questions about potential conflict of interest and reduce them to just mere politicization I think disrespects the people in this room that are following the State Department day-in, day-out, and are asking questions about the employees in this building.
QUESTION: Yeah, I would just say, Mark, that --
QUESTION: -- while Williams & Connolly, yes, is a large law firm, one would think that if one was in the position of hiring outside people to come in and look at this, you might – it’s – in addition to it being a large firm, it’s not the only law firm in town.
MR TONER: It’s true.
QUESTION: This is place is lousy with lawyers. Didn’t anyone think that it might be less – give less of an appearance of a potential problem if you found someone from a law firm that didn’t represent Secretary Clinton?
MR TONER: Again, we did not see a conflict of interest. We vetted these individuals before they came to work here.
QUESTION: I’m – you may well have, and I’m not suggesting that you didn’t.
MR TONER: I know. You’re saying --
QUESTION: But this town has got a billion law firms – all right, maybe not a billion. It’s got a lot of them.
MR TONER: I understand your point.
QUESTION: And a lot of lawyers in town have expertise in this. It just seems that you could have avoided, or someone could have – would have – this would have raised a potential red flag. Unless these people were the absolute only two – or whatever, how many lawyers in town that have – which is impossible, because there’s too many of them.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Not – maybe not too many. There are many, many of them, right?
MR TONER: I don’t know how you want me to answer that. Thank you, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:47 p.m.)
DPB # 178